John Haynes Holmes

Paul Sprecher

John Haynes Holmes was born into a Unitarian family soon after the Civil War. He grew up just outside of Boston, and his father would take him to Unitarian churches in Boston every Sunday so that he would hear the best preaching the city had to offer. Holmes idolized his grandfather, John Haynes, who had served as treasurer of the great Theodore Parker’s congregation in Boston. Parker was famous as an Abolitionist before the Civil War and preached tirelessly against slavery. He also got directly involved in the struggle against slavery by sheltering a runaway slave in his own home. Parker sometimes wrote his sermons with a pistol on his desk in case someone came around to drag the man he was protecting back into slavery. Parker died before John Haynes Holmes was born, but Holmes learned all about Parker from his grandfather. Parker was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite preachers, and his famous words in the Gettysburg Address, “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” probably came from something Theodore Parker once said.

John Haynes decided that his grandson was very smart and helped send him to Harvard for college. To save money, Holmes worked really hard so he could finish in three years instead of four and then went directly to divinity school. He started preaching in Dorchester, just south of Boston, but was soon called to one of the big Unitarian churches in New York, the Church of the Messiah. His favorite going-away present was from his grandfather: The Bible Theodore Parker had used when he preached in Boston. He felt as though his grandfather was passing on a great legacy and a great responsibility to him from Theodore Parker himself.

Holmes sometimes took very strong stands in his sermons and his work in the community that some of the members of his church disagreed with, but they always supported his right to say what he really believed was true. The most difficult disagreement was over whether the United States should fight World War I. Holmes was a pacifist – he was convinced that war is always wrong. When he made this announcement just when the United States was joining the war, he expected that the leaders of the church might want him to resign as their minister. Even though only one of them agreed with his position about the war, all of the leaders voted to give him their complete support as their minister. Even though they disagreed with him, they believed in the tradition of the free pulpit—the idea that ministers should be allowed to say what they believe even if the members of their church didn’t agree with them. Holmes took his beliefs to a meeting of representatives of all of the Unitarians in the United States later that year and argued in favor of pacifism even against a former president of the United States, William Howard Taft. His viewpoint was defeated by a vote of 236 to 9!

As part of his support for pacifism, Holmes learned about Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent struggle for the independence of India. Holmes introduced Gandhi in this country with a sermon called “Who Is the Greatest Man in the World?” in which he said that Gandhi’s ideas about how to bring about change without violence were some of the most important ideas for us to learn.

All his life, John Haynes Holmes struggled to help the underdog and to fight for peace. The stories about Theodore Parker that his grandfather told him were a constant inspiration in his own fights for justice. Today, the Unitarian Universalist Association gives an award in his name each year to the person who has best followed his example in committing their lives to social justice.