John Haynes Holmes

John Haynes Holmes

John Haynes Holmes was born in Philadelphia in 1879. After graduating from Harvard (1902) and Harvard Divinity School (1904) he became minister of the Unitarian Community Church in New York.

In 1909 Holmes helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Early members included Mary White Ovington, Josephine Ruffin, Mary Talbert, Mary Church Terrell, Inez Milholland, Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Sophonisba Breckinridge, John Haynes Holmes, Mary McLeod Bethune, George Henry White, William Du Bois, Charles Edward Russell, John Dewey, William Dean Howells, Lillian Wald, Charles Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Fanny Garrison Villard, Oswald Garrison Villard and Ida Wells-Barnett. A socialist and pacifist, Holmes was appalled by the way people were being persecuted for their political and religious beliefs during the First World War.

In 1920 he joined with others to establish the American Civil Rights Union (ACLU). Early members included Roger Baldwin, Norman Thomas, Jane Addams, Freda Kirchwey, Chrystal Eastman, Florence Kelley, Lillian Wald, Felix Frankfurter, Oswald Garrison Villard, Paul Kellogg, Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, Charles Beard, Abraham Muste, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Upton Sinclair.

The ACTU's main concern was to defend the civil rights that were guaranteed in state and federal constitutions. This included:

(1) First Amendment rights: These include freedom of speech, association and assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, including the strict separation between church and state.

(2) Equal protection of the law: The right to equal treatment regardless of race, sex, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age, physical handicap, or other such classification. These rights apply to the voting booth, the classroom, the workplace and the courts.

(3) Due process of law: The right to be treated fairly when facing criminal charges or other serious accusations that can result in such penalties as loss of employment, exclusion from school, denial of housing, or cut-off of benefits.

(4) The right of privacy and autonomy which cannot be penetrated by the government or by other institutions, like employers, with substantial influence over the individual's rights. Holmes was also involved in several other political campaigns. He helped Margaret Sanger establish the Planned Parenthood Movement. He was also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, The War Resisters League and the League for Industrial Democracy.

Holmes was the author of many books including A Sensible Man's View of Religion (1932), The Affirmation of Immortality (1947), My Gandhi (1953) and I Speak for Myself (1959).

John Haynes Holmes died in 1964.

Primary Sources

(1) John Haynes Holmes, A Statement to my People on the Eve of the War (3rd April, 1917)

When hostilities begin, it is universally assumed that there is but a single service which a loyal citizen can render to the state: that of bearing arms and killing the enemy. Will you understand me if I say, humbly and regretfully, that this I cannot, and will not, do. When, therefore, there comes a call for volunteers, I shall have to refuse to heed. When there is an enrollment of citizens for military purposes, I shall have to refuse to register. When, or if, the system of conscription is adopted, I shall have to decline to serve. If this means a fine, I will pay my fine. If this means imprisonment, I will serve my term. If this means persecution, I will carry my cross. No order of president or governor, no law of nation or state, no loss of reputation, freedom or life, will persuade me or force me to this business of killing. On this issue, for me at least, there is no compromise. Mistaken, foolish, fanatical, I may be; I will not deny the charge. But false to my own soul I will not be. Therefore here I stand. God help me! I cannot do other!

Therefore would I make it plain that, so long as I am your minister, this Church will answer no military summons. Other pulpits may preach recruiting sermons; mine will not. Other parish houses may be turned into drill halls and rifle ranges; ours will not. Other clergymen may pray to God for victory for our arms; I will not. In this church, if nowhere else in all America, the Germans will still be included in the family of God's children. No word of hatred shall be spoken against them and no evil fate shall be desired upon them. War may beat upon our portals, like storm waves on the granite crags; rumors of war may thrill the atmosphere of this sanctuary as lightning the still air of a summer night. But so long as I am priest, this altar shall be consecrated to human brotherhood, and before it shall be offered worship only to that one God and Father of us all, 'Who hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell together on the face of the earth.

(2) John Haynes Holmes, quoted by George Seldes in his book You Can't Print That! (1929)

Fascism is without exception the most dangerous and despicable power now existing in Europe. It is the incarnation of force which has not in this case the excuse of liberation and enlargement of life for the multitudes, as in Russia, but represents a frank reversion to old ways of tyranny and death.

The megalomania of its leader, Mussolini, is the perfect symbol of its essential character of madness. At one stroke Fascism has robbed Italy of the glory bestowed upon her by Mazzini and his compeers, and may at any moment plunge Europe into the vast disaster of another war. While Fascism endures there can be no freedom for Italy, no security for the world. To protest against the Fascist despotism, to expose its injustice and horror, to labour for its overthrow, is a first duty to the cause of human liberty.

(3) John Haynes Holmes, letter to Freda Kirchwey (March, 1942)

I would fight to the death to maintain their (fascists) liberties, not for their own sake, but for the sake of a democracy which disappears when such liberties are withdrawn. Indeed, it is no longer a democracy, but to the extent at least that civil liberties are denied, has already itself become a fascist state.

(4) Donald Harrington, John Hayes Holmes: The Community Church of New York (2001)

Holmes served The Community Church as Jr. Colleague, Senior Minister and Minister Emeritus for a total of fifty-seven years. This year, 2001, I too will have served it in those same capacities for fifty-seven years!

I have said many times that I believe John Haynes Holmes was the greatest all-around minister of religion of the 20th Century: pacifist, orator, churchman, social service organizer, racial and social justice pioneer, pastor, adult educator, political participant and leader, poet and philosopher, all at once!

Holmes may have been best known for his stalwart pacifism and early recognition of the greatness of Mahatma Gandhi. It was in 1921, when Gandhi was almost unknown, that Holmes preached a sermon entitled The Greatest Man Alive in the World Today - not Wilson, Lloyd George, Lenin, Stalin, not Trotsky; not Clemenceau, Churchill or Tolstoy, but Mohandas K. Gandhi of India, the apostle of non-violence!