In 1876 Dr. Felix Adler founded the Ethical Culture Movement which proclaimed a vision of humanity united in common concern for ethical values.
Adler was a practical visionary. Like
Emerson, he envisioned a religion focused on ethics rather than metaphysical
beliefs; unlike Emerson, he took on the challenge of inaugurating such a
movement. He brought to rational ethics a passion more commonly associated with
sectarian crusaders and nationalistic warriors. His spiritual and intellectual
quest set the liberal tone of Ethical Culture, and it serves as something of a
paradigm for contemporary freethinkers.
Adler was born August 13, 1851, in Alzey, Germany. His father, Samuel, was a Reform Jewish rabbi. Like his father, two brothers, and father‑in‑law, the elder Adler was ordained in the Orthodox tradition; in the course of his intellectual development, however, Samuel embraced the reform movement and became one of its chief proponents in Europe. In 1857, the rabbi was elected to the pulpit of New York's Temple Emanu-El, which was in the vanguard of the American reform movement. During his career at Emanu-El, Samuel Adler instituted striking educational and liturgical reforms, including removal of the temple partition separating men and women.
New York City, Felix Adler and his siblings grew up in an environment imbued
with religious devotion and intellectual inquisitiveness. Felix and his older
brother, Isaac, attended the Columbia Grammar School and Columbia College, both
of which were private Christian institutions that admitted few Jews. The boys
also attended the Temple Emanu‑El Sunday School, and Samuel augmented their
religious instruction with lessons in Hebrew and Jewish history as well as in
the Talmud, the Bible, and works of Jewish scholarship. In addition to
providing a rounded secular and religious education, Samuel and Henrietta Adler
inculcated in their children a distinct humanitarian spirit.
other striking influences in Adler's youth deserve mention. First, he felt
terribly lonesome and alienated in his school environment. As he wrote in his
memoirs, "A Jewish boy from a family largely German among typically
American boys of the wealthy class, I found I was forced back upon myself by
lack of companionship."
When he entered college at age 15, his relative youth exacerbated his social awkwardness. In addition to encouraging the development of Adler's inner life, this alienation introduced the youth to the harsh realities of economic stratification and religious and racial prejudice. His later efforts to break through class distinctions and sectarian boundaries were no doubt partly fueled by his memories of isolation. Secondly, the Civil War broke out only a few years after the Adler family immigrated to the United States. Samuel Adler imparted to his children his passionate opposition to slavery, and reports of the war showed Felix with what ardor social reform can be resisted; as his moral indignation and social idealism matured, Adler knew what reactionary opposition he could expect.
Founding of Ethical Culture
Although he rejected theism in its usual conceptualizations, Adler retained his urge to revitalize religion. If religion is an institution subject to the universal principles of cultural evolution, he reasoned, then the modem generation is obliged to overhaul the institution to serve the needs of its age. He adopted Matthew Arnold's depiction of God as a moral power, and he embraced Kant’s supposition that ethical behavior is based not on faith but on an irrefutable moral imperative operating in the mind of every individual. He believed that this stance provided the foundation for a religion that would respect and incorporate intellectual advances while promoting social cohesiveness and ethical progress.
Members of the Temple Emanu‑El congregation did not all share young Adler's enthusiasm for his newly wrought religious outlook. Upon his return to New York in 1873, the rabbi's son was asked to deliver a sermon at the temple. The congregation tendered the invitation so that it might assess Adler's fitness to succeed his father; Adler, however, used the opportunity to test the congregation's openness to his universalistic vision of religion. In the sermon, titled "The Judaism of the Future," Adler proposed that the Jewish faith serve as the driving force of a broader religion of ethics:
Despite Adler's theological departure, many of Emanu‑El's congregants were deeply impressed by his erudition, social idealism, and oratorical skill. In October 1873, a month after his temple sermon, 47 congregants signed a letter inviting him to deliver a series of lectures "on subjects congenial to and connected with your line of studies."
Adler was gratified by the
invitation; between November 1873 and March 1874, he delivered six public
lectures at New York's Lyric Hall. The lecture series included talks on major
world religions ‑‑ Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as Judaism ‑‑ and a
critical assessment of the prospects of religious growth in the United States.
He drew heavily upon the philosophical and sociological works he had studied in
The notoriety Adler attained through the lecture series led to his appointment as a nonresident professor of Hebrew and Oriental literature at Cornell University. Beginning in spring 1874, he lectured for about six weeks each school year for three years. The texts of his lectures are not extant, but he reportedly included in his literary talks the critical assessment of world religions he had introduced in the Lyric Hall addresses.
His Cornell lectures drew sizeable and appreciative audiences, but his religious liberalism antagonized conservative Christians both on the faculty and in the Ithaca community; the antipathy toward him resulted from a mixture of sectarian provincialism and bald anti-Semitism. As a result of the controversy, Adler's contract was not renewed after it lapsed in 1876.
Adler called for regular
Sunday meetings that would include lectures and music; he explicitly ruled out
the use of prayer and rituals. By the following fall, more than 250 people had
bought subscriptions to the first lecture series, and on Feb. 21, 1877, the New
York Society for Ethical Culture was formally incorporated. In its articles of
incorporation, the society declared its purpose to be "the mutual improvement
in religious knowledge and the furtherance of religious opinion which shall be
in part accomplished by a system of weekly lectures, in which the principles of
ethics shall be developed, propagated, and advanced among adults, and in part
by the establishment of a school or schools wherein a course of moral
instruction shall be supplied for the young."
A few words from Dr. Felix Adler:
Founded in 1886, 10 years after the first Society for Ethical Culture was established in New York City, the Ethical Society of St. Louis was incorporated in the state of Missouri as a charitable, religious, and educational corporation.
Ethical Society of St. Louis, from the very beginning, gathered to inspire free
thought, the edification of working‑class people, and the cultivation of the
inner ethical life.
Walter Lorenzo Sheldon, the inaugural leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, was at once the most ponderous and most activist of the Society's leaders. He was a complex man, a stoic and rationalist with a profound appreciation of mystical experience. Though fettered by guilt and bouts of dark depression, he was a seminal thinker in the early development of Ethical Culture and a pioneer in the movement's education of children. He shared with the fellowship his devotion to free thought, the edification of working‑class people, and cultivation of the inner life. If one searches for reasons why the Ethical movement has flourished in St. Louis while lagging and even disintegrating in larger cities, Sheldon's troubled but forceful personality stands out as an irreplaceable boon. By attracting hundreds of loyal members and making the society's influence felt throughout the city, Sheldon bequeathed to the fellowship two decades of vital momentum.
From 1883 to 1885, Sheldon worked with Adler at the New York Society; his principal role was as leader of the Society's Young Men's Union. During his apprenticeship, he continued his studies in political and social science at Columbia University. At the time, Adler was looking for someone who could lead an ethical society in St. Louis; a group there had sought to organize a society since 1883, and its request was prominent on Adler's list of expansion sites.