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William James Potter

William James PotterWilliam James Potter (February 1, 1829-December 21, 1893), born in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, was a Unitarian minister, a founder, Secretary and President of the Free Religious Association, and President and later Editor of The Index. For more than forty years Potter was perhaps the leading public citizen of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Born the last of nine children into a poor Quaker farming family, William was sent to the Friends School in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, a widower, hoped that he would return to work on the family farm and had only reluctantly allowed him to go away for secondary education. The assumption was that William would return to the community and, while farming, teach primary school for part of the year. But even as a student at the Friends School, he had begun to question Quaker doctrine and practice. He objected to aspects of the rigid discipline intended to keep Friends Society members from intellectual or theological inquiry and from participation in the public life of the community. Students were only allowed to read from a carefully selected, small library. After a year or two at Providence, Potter returned to Dartmouth and began teaching in November, 1846.

In defiance of Quaker strictures, Potter read William Ellery Channing's works and soon went on to Charles Follen. He started a journal which he continued until he began his ministry. The journal eloquently records his profound spiritual odyssey from the encapsulated world of the Friends to a radical and inclusive religious consciousness and a deep commitment to making the church an active instrument for social justice. The journals reveal his deep inner struggle over the move from the Quakers to the Unitarians, over whether his shy personality made him temperamentally unfit for the ministry, as well as over the possibility of finding a congregation open to his radical ideas and willing to allow him to continue his religious exploration.

Meanwhile, Potter prepared as a teacher at the Normal School in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. After a brief teaching career, he entered Harvard College from which he graduated third in his class in 1854. He taught at Cambridge High School until he entered the Harvard Divinity School in 1856. From Cambridge he regularly went into Boston to hear Theodore Parker.

Potter never graduated from Divinity School. After a year he sailed for Germany to study at the University of Berlin. Feeling he was learning little there, he moved on to the University at Tübingen and then left for extensive travel in Southern Europe. He returned to Cambridge in 1858 in order to seek a church. After preaching in New Bedford several times in July, 1859, he was called to the pulpit in the fall and ordained and installed in December. Though there is anecdotal evidence that he was later approached by several other congregations, he remained with the New Bedford congregation until his retirement in 1892.

Potter and the New Bedford congregation were an ideal match. Most of the congregation's leading members had been disowned by the Friends for having taken a spiritual path similar to Potter's. Affluent, liberal and adventurous, they welcomed him as a suitable successor to the radical John Weiss. His first sermon was titled, "Apostolic Succession." He portrayed continuing progress in religion—evolution. Reminding the many former Quakers in the congregation that the Society of Friends had become orthodox and rigid, he declared that Unitarians were in danger of doing the same. He told them he was committed to seeking the truth wherever the quest might lead, and that science would be an ally in his search. He also spoke of his eagerness to place religion at the center of public life and of what would become the mission of his entire ministry. "I believe the mission of Unitarian Christianity is . . . to liberalize and spiritualize all religious sects, to make all society religious and all life worship; and all ecclesiastical organizations, forms, rituals, ministers, missions, houses of worship, the very Church itself are nothing, and worse than nothing, if they do not effect this."

From his first years in the ministry, Potter was outspoken on religious and public issues. In the whaling capital of the world, two 1863 sermons titled, "A Pulpit view of the Business Interest of Our City," announced to the rich ship owners sitting before him that the whaling industry was dead. He urged them to keep their capital in the city and to invest in manufacturing. He established a Committee on Charities within the congregation which raised substantial sums for work in the community, in the American Unitarian Association, and to support causes related to the Civil War. As an ardent Abolitionist, he was a strong supporter of the war. In 1863 he was drafted, and he felt it a moral duty to go rather than to accept an offer to let wealthy parishioners buy a substitute. National fame came with the widespread publication of his sermon, "The Voice of the Draft." Called to Washington by Secretary of War Stanton, he became a consultant to the secretary, a chaplain, and later an agent for the Sanitary Commission.

Before leaving New Bedford, he had fallen in love with Elizabeth Claghorn Babcock, a member of the congregation and a teacher in the New Bedford schools. Her father, Spooner Babcock, was an artisan; her mother Lydia Delano Babcock had family connections with great wealth. Lydia's brother Joseph had made a substantial fortune in the shipping trade. A first cousin, Warren Delano II, who in the China trade, became one of the nation's wealthiest men. (Warren's daughter, Sara, was the mother of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.) Though Elizabeth was in fragile health, she bore two children. Anna was born a day after his return from the war in August, 1864. (She was the mother of the poet, novelist and critic Conrad Aiken.) Alfred, born years later, became a librarian at Harvard College. (Some critics have suggested he was the model for T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock.)

The National Conference of Unitarians was organized in 1865. Potter was not present at the organizing meeting. A member of the parish, Congressman Thomas Dawes Eliot, brother of Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot, was at the center of the "broad church" leadership circle. Potter was deeply disappointed by the Christian emphasis of the majority. He attended the second gathering in Syracuse the following year where the Conference rejected attempts to make the Conference more explicitly inclusive of any and all faiths.

Thereafter, Potter determined to work with Revs. Francis Ellingwood Abbot and Edward Towne to create a new organization, what he called "a spiritual anti-slavery society." After two initial organizing meetings in Boston, the three were named to the committee to prepare a constitution for the Free Religious Association, of which Potter was probably the principal author. He made many of the arrangements for the initial public meeting on May 30, 1867, during the Unitarian Anniversary Week (annual meetings), and was elected Secretary. He continued in that office until elected President in 1882, a position he held until his death in 1893.

In 1873, after Octavius Brooks Frothingham, the president of the FRA, asked to have his name removed from the Unitarian Year Book, George W. Fox, Assistant Secretary of the AUA, wrote to Potter and several others asking them if they wished to continue having their names listed. Potter declined to take responsibility for making that decision. When told that inclusion meant being identified as a Unitarian Christian, he responded "I do not call myself by that or any other denominational name." His name was omitted. After publication of the Fox-Potter correspondence in the Christian Register some complained that Potter had been unjustly disfellowshipped. Although Potter affected indifference he had, in fact, colluded with his FRA colleagues to make it appear that the AUA had expelled him. A decade later, without fanfare, his name was restored to the Year Book list.

More than any other individual, Potter kept the FRA together in spite of the radical individualism of most of its members. Throughout most of his ministry he had little formal contact with either the National Conference or the American Unitarian Association, and in this his congregation followed his lead. Only after his death did the congregation vote to rejoin the National Conference—after the Conference had adopted a new preamble.

While leadership in the Free Religious Association was Potter's chief source of public recognition, he had other major commitments. He worked closely with Abbot in establishing The Index, served for several years as editor of the news items, and he was the volatile and assertive Abbot's principal supporter and advisor. He served on the board of The Index Association, and after Abbot's resignation, became the editor in 1880, serving until its demise in 1886.

He also worked hard and effectively to build his congregation and to make it a force for service and justice in New Bedford and the wider community. Much more radical than the majority of his members, Potter's generosity of spirit and eagerness to serve carried most members along with him. Often expressing radical religious ideas, he regularly spoke out on major public issues as well. In response to the First Vatican Council in 1870, he preached a sermon expressing a dream that someday there would be gathering where leaders of all the world's religions would meet as equals to share their faiths. He was specially interested in Hinduism and was in regular communication with leaders of the Brahmo Samaj.

Potter's religion was grounded in the conviction that there is a creative and sustaining force at the center of the universe which may be called God, but is not personal. He held that science shows us the way toward truth, God is evidenced in nature, religion evolves, and Christianity is but one step in the progression. The purpose of religion is to build character expressed in a thoughtful and inclusive dedication to duty.

In the church he led in building a chapel for the Sunday School and the Sewing Circle, a group dedicated to social service in the community. He initiated very popular Sunday Afternoon vespers, mostly musical, to attract people who could not afford pews. He initiated the Union for Good Works as a community center to give young working people opportunities for healthy recreation and the development of useful skills. His curriculum design for the Swain Free School gave expression to his concern for educational programs for those who could not afford college. After the Civil War he acted on an enduring concern for the needs of the freedmen (and women). He spoke publicly on their behalf and raised money through the church and other sources to work for their advancement. His concern for justice extended to active engagement on behalf of women and Native Americans. As the first president of the radical Bell Street Chapel in Providence, Rhode Island, he preached at the ordination of his protégé, Anna Garlin Spencer.

For the sake of Elizabeth's health, as her tuberculosis advanced, he moved his family to Grantville, now Wellesley Hills, high ground west of Boston. For several years he commuted to New Bedford on Sundays and as needed. After she died in 1876, he returned to New Bedford and did not marry again. Upon his retirement from the New Bedford pulpit in 1892 the congregation gave him a generous grant to enable him to travel to California to share his ideas with congregations there. The highlight of his professional life was the realization of his 1870 dream in the World Parliament of Religions at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. There he presided over the twenty-sixth annual meeting of the Free Religious Association and delivered an address on its twenty-five year history.

On December 21, 1893, having conducted the wedding ceremony for his son, he collapsed and died on the way back to his Boston hotel.

Potter's manuscript sermons and other writings can be found in the archives of the Free Public Library in New Bedford, Massachusetts. His journals and many letters are at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. There are numerous references to him in the journals and correspondence of Francis Ellingwood Abbot in the Harvard University Archives. Many of Potter's sermons were prepared with publication in mind and were subsequently printed in The Index. Others were printed for public distribution. On the anniversary of his twenty-five years in the New Bedford pulpit, the congregation arranged for the publication of Twenty-five Sermons of Twenty-five Years (1885). Following his death members commissioned another volume, Lectures and Sermons (1895), edited by Potter's best friend, Francis Ellingwood Abbot, who also provided a biographical sketch. Other writings include The Philosophy of Reform (1852), The Doctrine of Pre-existence and the Fourth Gospel (1868), The First Congregational Society in New Bedford, Massachusetts: Its History as Illustrative of Ecclesiastical Evolution (1889), and The Free Religious Association, Its Twenty-five Years and Their Meaning: An Address for the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Association (1892). Potter's thought is described in W. Creighton Peden, Civil War Pulpit to World's Parliament of Religion: The Thought of William James Potter, 1829-1893 (1996). This work also contains a thorough bibliography. Peden wrote the entry on Potter for American National Biography. For more on Potter's early years see Richard Kellaway William James Potter from Convinced Quaker to Prophet of Free Religion: An Epic Spiritual Oddysey: Volume I (2014).

Article by Richard Kellaway - posted June 18, 2001

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