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The Enduring Legacy of A. Powell Davies

Preached at River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, January 16, 1999

Rev. Scott W. Alexander


I do not particularly ascribe to the view of history which suggests that the course of human events is primarily determined by the actions and influence of a few great men and women. I believe that it is more broad cultural and intellectual forces which determine the evolving shape of human life -- they loom larger and are more lasting than those few meteoric persons in our world who brightly shoot across the human sky achieving fame and notoriety. Great individuals do great things, and often turn events by the sheer magnitude and power of their lives, but they do not, in the end, I believe, drive the core realities of human history.

That said, I want to tell the story (this morning) of a truly great man -- a man of tremendous principle and persuasion...intellect and influence...stature and substance -- a man who unquestionably made a profoundly positive difference in this city (Washington), this nation (the United States), and our wider human world. Wherever he went...whatever he did...whenever he spoke...he moved things, changed people and made good things happen.

In June of 1955, A. Powell Davies, who was the minister of All Souls Unitarian Church and an outspoken advocate for racial desegregation and equality, received a rare honor. He was awarded an honorary degree by Howard University, the prestigious, predominantly black, Washington institution which (in those days) seldom honored non-black leaders. President Mordecai Johnson's citation read as follows:

"[A.] Powell Davies: some twenty-seven years ago you came to America from another country and took your place among us as a pastor and speaker and writer about the one God of all human life. There are many [ministers] among us, but about you, from the very beginning, there was a marked differential; you spoke and wrote with realistic relevance about the affairs and movements going on in the present world around us, and in the name of God you called upon us to do things about these affairs and movements which involved intense convictions and courage and risk to do...as we have been moved by you to do these things in...devotion to the fulfillment of our democratic institutions we have become aware that something great was taking place within ourselves; our spiritual convictions have been deepened, the radius of our ethical life has been expanded to touch the ends of the earth, and there has been rising within us a new wellspring of exhilarating moral energy."
Now one might dismiss these glowing words of praise as excessive hyperbole brought on by the grand academic occasion, but that would be to not understand the true greatness and breadth of this man and religious leader. A. Powell Davies (although he was to die suddenly and tragically just two years later of a pulmonary embolism while working at his desk one day at the relatively young age of 55) was arguably the greatest Unitarian minister of this century. Scholars of 20th Century American religious history have singled him out as a remarkably wise, courageous and prophetic voice...and there are people sitting in this room at this moment who personally knew him during his remarkable, public career here in Washington, and will testify (with tears of both lingering gratitude and grief in their eyes) about the broad influence for good that this man had upon this city, this nation, and their personal lives. Listen to what the Washington Post said about him upon his death. Remember please that he had only been the minister of All Souls for thirteen years -- from 1944 when he came to the nation's capital at the close of World War II until his untimely death in 1957 -- but in that time his words and deeds had obviously left an indelible impression:
"Scholarly and learned, yet earthy and pragmatic, Dr. Davies was at once the spiritual leader and goading conscience to his congregation and to the whole community...All men, indeed all men who believe in human dignity and brotherhood, are the poorer for the passing of this courageous, fiery, and yet gentle spirit...Convenience and convention never silenced him. He was most certainly the most controversial of clergymen in the nation's capital. By the same token, he was, among all the members of his calling, the most resolute and indomitable champion of righteousness [and the brotherhood of man] as he saw it. [He was] militantly in the forefront of every assault upon intolerance and racial discrimination and injustice."
Even the F.B.I (who were more than a little suspicious of him because of his unflagging commitment to racial, social and economic justice, and other so-called "left wing" causes) recognized the power of this man to influence and inspire others. They wrote of him in their secret files,
"He has a very fast mind and speaks very fast...he is a fluent and very pleasing orator...he has an air of utmost confidence in his ability to speak and answer questions properly, which makes him an interesting person to listen to."
As his biographer George Marshall put it,
"Davies attracted many persons to listen to him because he had the courage to speak out and to speak out honestly when others were silent. Although gentle and generous in personal relationships, he had a mind of steel, and never fell into the sleep of sentimentalism...Davies genius was that he could eloquently capture in his spoken words the essences of universal concerns, but also actually apply his principles in direct action, and he was inspiring...he required that people look into themselves and face what they found...he compelled others to right action...He could bring people around, he could change attitudes and behavior patterns, he could convert, and he made believers out of many jaundiced people who had lost their faith in democracy and in the chance to improve the human lot. "
Even influential Time magazine took notice of this remarkable man, writing in 1946 (just two years after Davies began his Washington ministry):
"In Washington DC, where many talk but few listen, spare, sharp-profiled A. Powell Davies is a man who is heard. Every Sunday his congregation at the red brick All Soul's Unitarian Church overflows from the church auditorium into adjacent halls and recreation rooms. Reason: his 35 minute sermons are protein rich with wit, wisdom, sincerity and invective. His preaching has made welsh-born Davies one of America's outstanding liberal clergymen."
I could spend the whole morning quoting people who (to this day, nearly a half a century after his death) still speak globally and glowingly of this remarkable human being. But the real story of this most worthy life must be told - I think - in particular ...for it is in the particularity of the vision he had, the principles he upheld, and the battles he fought for human worth and dignity that the greatness of this human being comes alive with the power to actually instruct and inform us in our living. His was a rich, complex, and frenetic life...his energy, interest, and engagement with life were breath-taking. Sadly, in the brief course of this sermon, I will only be able to sketch the mere outlines of this noble and noteworthy life. But even in the mere outlines of this life there are treasures waiting for us to discover, and use (if we are wise and willing) in our (albeit more ordinary) living. So hold on to your hats, dear friends...here we go with the story of A. Powell Davies (and by the way, if after this morning you want to know more, more is available, including several collections of his writings in our library, and the marvelous Chalice Tuesday course offered by our own Ed Gilbert)!

Born in England of Welsh descent in 1902, A. Powell Davies trained for the Methodist ministry, wisely courted and married an intelligent young beauty named Muriel Hannah and then immigrated to the "greener pastures" of the United States. While serving small and struggling Methodist churches in Maine, he discovered Unitarianism through his friendship with Vincent Silliman, Minister of the First Parish Church in Portland...and finding it much more congenial to his broad and free thinking, was welcomed into formal fellowship as a Unitarian minister in 1932. Being recognized almost immediately (by the denomination's leaders in Boston) for his outstanding intellectual and leadership abilities, he was recommended as the ministerial candidate to our important congregation in Summit, New Jersey, which he served with distinction for eleven years, before he was called to All Souls here in Washington.

His Summit years had many noteworthy accomplishments and achievements, but perhaps the greatest of these was the leadership position he (almost immediately) assumed in helping the American Unitarian Association move into the next phase of its theological and religious evolution. To make a long story short, as the appointed Chair of the denomination-wide Unitarian Advance project, A. Powell Davies helped to move Unitarianism from "just another Protestant sect," (where it was in fact numerically and spiritually languishing, as what I would judge to have been just a pale version of Methodism or Congregationalism) to the modern, universal, democratic, synthesizing (and fast growing) faith that it was to become. Challenging the whole movement to rise to the great spiritual opportunity that awaited it, he wrote,

"The denomination must make up its mind as to what Unitarianism is...If we are 'just another Protestant denomination,' then we have no distinction and no justification for large scale advance. [But] If we are what Channing called 'the universal church, [a religion without regard to race, nation, or creed] from which no [one] is excluded except by the death of goodness in his [or her] own heart,' then we should begin to be that church. The world is waiting for it."
Davies (perhaps more than any other Unitarian leader of that time) had a clear, sure vision of the democratic, inclusive, free thinking, humanity-affirming religion we were to become (and remain today, even as we continue to evolve as a "free church")...and his great accomplishment was helping others to see it just when they needed that vision most. As his biographer noted, during his entire public career, "He saw issues clearly before they were generally recognized, making him a pioneer spokesperson." By the time he arrived at All Souls in 1944, Davies had already established himself as a visionary thinker and institutional leader within Unitarianism, a role he would continue to play until his death (including his instrumental role in the creation of eight new Unitarian churches in the metropolitan area - including this one - congregations which have split and grown now to more than 20!)

It was with his arrival in Washington, the Nation's Capital, that Davies' public ministry really blossomed in all its positive force and broad influence. From his pulpit up on 16th Street, his strong, confident, and principled voice came to be heard, not only at seats of government here in D.C., but across the nation and world, as he fearlessly addressed the pressing, practical, and often political issues of the day . Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, cabinet officials, and other government leaders were among the throngs who came to hear this spell-binding and persuasive preacher, filling all the halls at All Souls to overflowing each Sunday, with as many as 1,000 to 1,500 people listening to him every week (and thousands more reading of his sermons in the Post and other venues in which he was regularly quoted). Listen now (for a minute or two) to a recording of one of his more memorable sermons, "The Uses of Frustration":


Davies regularly used the pulpit of All Souls to address pressing and practical social and political problems of the day, often with remarkable results.

For example, in 1945, deeply troubled by the widespread starvation affecting European war refugees, Davies preached a sermon about this "crime against human decency" affluent Americans were allowing. In response to his eloquent sermon, the members of All Souls and other Washingtonians immediately collected more than one hundred tons of canned food, (and many tons of clothing as well) and after the Washington Post printed the complete text of the sermon, newspapers, churches, schools and other organizations all across America began collecting countless tons of additional food for famine relief. Davies was subsequently elected President of the Board of Directors of "Food For Freedom," the major non-governmental famine relief agency set up after the war, and this compassionate citizen action finally goaded the Truman administration to allocate adequate resources to end the starvation of many millions who had survived the war.

Another example. Horrified by the destruction American nuclear weapons had rained down on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and committed to doing what he could to protect humanity from future global nuclear destruction, A. Powell Davies used both his pulpit and his national prestige to press for civilian control of atomic energy and resources. Never one to mince his words, at a moment when it looked like the military might be given the power to do what it chose with nuclear weapons, Davies cried out,

"Madmen govern our affairs in the name of order and security. The chief madmen claim the title of general, admiral, senator, scientist, administrator, Secretary of State, even President...They have been carrying through a series of acts which will lead eventually to the destruction of mankind."
After his sermons on the subject received widespread national attention, he took a leadership role in the struggle, he was elected chair of the national Emergency Committee for Civilian Control of Atomic Energy, and worked tirelessly for more than a year to ensure that congress and the Truman administration created the Atomic Energy Commission with its civilian controls.

Another example. Beginning in 1946, Davies regularly used his pulpit to speak out against racial prejudice and segregation. In 1947, after he declared from the pulpit that "There can be no segregation in a Unitarian church without it ceasing to be really a Unitarian church," the congregation voted to fully work for the abolition of prejudice and discrimination. In 1953, "sensing that things were not moving as rapidly as he had hoped," one Sunday with nearly 1,200 people in the pews, Dr. Davies pledged himself (and invited members of the congregation to join him) to refusing to patronize eating places and places of entertainment where [Blacks] were not admitted, "I shall myself," (he boomed from the pulpit) "from this time on, not knowingly eat a meal in any restaurant in the District of Columbia that will not serve meals to Negroes." A list of non-segregated eating places was printed and more than 40,000 copies were distributed in the Washington area, and soon (as national publicity about Davies' pledge spread) similar civilian action programs were set up in other cities. Soon, in response to all the pressure and publicity, a law was passed making discrimination in the nation's capital a criminal offense, which was upheld by the Supreme Court. Davies continued to work tirelessly to rout out racial prejudice and segregation, and one of the most important battles came right to All Souls.

Since 1937, the Police Association Boys Club rented space in the church for a "whites only" program. Under pressure from Davies, the church informed the Police Association that they must desegregate the club or eventually face eviction, and were somewhat shocked when the Police Association refused to desegregate and vacated the premise. Not to be defeated by such prejudice, Dr. Davies persuaded the Unitarian Service Committee up in Boston to immediately fund and staff an integrated boy's club, the Columbia Heights Boys Club, which quickly became a highly visible and successful example of integration and racial harmony in our nation's capital. The club, which was opened to girls in the early 60's and is today named the Columbia Heights Youth Club, has long stood in Washington as a shining example of human equality, fair play and justice, and remains a living legacy to the principled ministry of A. Powell Davies.

One final example is A. Powell Davies courageous confrontation with McCarthyism. Long committed to American democratic ideals, it surprised no one when Dr. Davies began speaking out forcefully (when many were cowed and silenced by intimidation tactics) against the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Attacking those infamous senate hearings from the All Soul's pulpit, Davies declared of McCarthy,

"[He] has not unearthed a single communist or done anything whatever but lower the level of American Standards of fair play and decency...the very standards we are fighting to preserve in our struggle with the communists...What we need is not merely anti-communism, but good Americanism, with truth and justice as bed-rock principles. We shall not defeat the communists by rivaling them in fanaticism and big-lie methods. These men," [referring directly to McCarthy and his minions] "these men who live by fear, who rule by fear and would destroy us through fear must be vanquished by men of faith."
McCarthy finally fell of course, in no small part due to the political and moral pressure brought to bear by fearless critics like Davies, who saw that the great democratic principles of American life were endangered, and required unequivocal defense (and were willing to take the risk of standing up to this national bully and demagogue).

These then are just a few of the moving (and most noteworthy) highlights of this strong, influential and principled ministry. Dr. Davies, of course, did far more during his all-too-brief 13 year All Soul's ministry, as one biographer put it, "his energies seemed inexhaustable." He wrote books and reviewed others for leading national publications (including the New York Times...he regularly spoke out on the radio and at public events all across America on behalf of a wide variety of human causes...he fought for the democratic principle of home rule for D.C. residents...he played a crucial role in the founding of the national organization Americans for Democratic Action... he unwaveringly defended members of All Souls who were falsely accused of crimes...he served on the Boards of national organizations like the Planned Parenthood Federation (because of his firm belief women had the right to birth control and family planning), the Unitarian Service Committee (and all their worldwide relief projects), Meadville Lombard Theological School, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State...he continued to serve on a wide variety of denominational commissions, committees and boards. Look...I am known for my rather high energy level, but just reading about the pace, depth, intensity and breadth of this man's ministry exhausted me! Surely one of the qualities that led to Dr. Davies prodigious list of accomplishments was his tireless, physical (and intellectual) intensity.

Alright, so there you have (the broad outlines at least) of the life and ministry of the great minister and humanitarian, the Rev. A. Powell Davies. But what is, in the end, the point of preaching a sermon about the stellar life of a great man or woman? Certainly it is NOT the hope that, inspired by the brilliant example of such shining nobility and incredible talents, we ourselves will somehow suddenly succeed in transforming ourselves into great persons who (by the clarity, courage and compassion of our living) will (all by ourselves) steer the human enterprise in whole, fresh, new, liberating directions. To dream of such is to dream too much for ourselves...we are more ordinary than that. But there is no shame in the human ordinariness most of us routinely inhabit, and we should not (most of us) imagine that it is necessary (or even possible) for us to live the kind of systematic and sustained greatness that meteors across the human sky like A. Powell Davies managed.

But we can take strength and purpose for our own living from those rare and noble lives that shine so much more brightly than our own. We can take the large legacies of their lives quietly into our own, and be enriched, even transformed. Surely we are -- all of us, ordinary as we shall be, for the full, fumbling course of our lives - EVERMORE CAPABLE of DOING GREATER and LIVING GREATER than we have heretofore done. Few of us have the natural resources of an A. Powell Davies. Few if us have been granted his supple and far-ranging intellect...few of us possess his indomitable spirit and unwavering courage...few of us have his powers of discernment and vision...few of us have his natural ability to persuade others to both see and do what is right. But we can -- in ordinary moments of our ordinary living -- remember his unwavering commitment to moral and human principle...remember his devotion to justice, compassion and mercy...remember his tenacious desire to do what is right for the good of persons and the human family... remember how one principled person can make a difference in the world. Our hearts can remember the way A. Powell Davies so nobly touched his world...and go and do likewise (with steadily growing consistency and compassion) in the little corners of this planet we inhabit. What greater legacy could we seek?