Ethical Culture

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ETHICAL CULTURE , a movement dedicated to the ethical improvement of society and the ethical growth of the individual, was inaugurated with the founding of the New York Society for Ethical Culture in May 1876 by Felix Adler and a group of his Jewish supporters. Adler was the son of Rabbi Samuel Adler of New York's Temple Emanu-El, and he was expected to succeed his father in this cathedral pulpit of American Reform Judaism. But having been exposed in German universities to nineteenth-century science, Kantian philosophy, and historical criticism of religion, he came to reject theism and the finality of Jewish theology even in its most liberal form. His new faith consisted of a passionate belief in the inviolability and power of the moral law and the duty to apply it to society, especially to the problems of industrialization, urbanization, and the working poor.

What initially began as a Sunday lecture movement, somewhat patterned after the Independent Church movement and free religious societies such as those of O. B. Frothingham, grew under Adler's leadership to become a vital organization spearheading social reforms and social reconstruction. Adler's personal magnetism drew a membership of well more than one thousand to the society by the early 1880s, mostly but not exclusively people of Jewish origin. He also attracted ethically idealistic and socially committed people of liberal Christian background whom he helped groom to be leaders of other Ethical Culture societies. The Ethical Culture movement took on a national flavor as Adler's apprentices organized new societies in other cities: William M. Salter, Chicago, 1883; S. Burns Weston, Philadelphia, 1885; Walter L. Sheldon, Saint Louis, 1886. The American societies federated as a national organization in 1889, the American Ethical Union, and over the years, new societies springing up in urban and suburban areas across the country (Brooklyn, Westchester County, Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Essex County, N.J.) were added to its roster. By 1930, membership in American Ethical Culture societies numbered about thirty-five hundred, and by the mid-1980s, membership in the more than twenty societies totaled approximately five thousand. (The largest society remains the New York branch, at about one thousand.)

Ethical Culture became truly international in scope in the 1890s. The London Ethical Society had been founded in 1886, with such distinguished thinkers participating as Bernard Bosanquet, Edward Caird, and Leslie Stephen, and British interest had been spurred when Stanton Coit, another Adler apprentice, arrived in 1887 and led London's South Place Chapel into the Ethical Culture movement. Coit subsequently created a British Ethical Union in 1896. The movement reached Germany, where a society was founded in Berlin in 1892, and societies also appeared in France, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and Japan in this new decade. The various societies, each with its own nuanced organizational goals and ethical approaches, were in contact and quite cognizant of each other's activities. At a Zurich meeting in 1896 they created an international confederation, the International Ethical Union, which kept member organizations in touch with each other and which also convened world congresses devoted to specific themes, such as those in London (1908) and the Hague (1912). In the wake of World War II the union became moribund, but in 1952 humanist organizations joined with Ethical Culture societies led by the American Ethical Union to found the International Humanist and Ethical Union with member groups in North and Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Whether or not Ethical Culture is judged a religion depends on one's definition of religion and one's inclination either to use or not use the word to designate an ethical humanist posture. Felix Adler did regard Ethical Culture to be a religion and in his later years tried to work out a metaphysic to express it. Still, he adamantly insisted that Ethical Culture embraced all in ethical fellowship regardless of diverse approaches and different names given to the quest for meaning in life. This openness has clearly persisted to this day. Nonetheless, the societies do assume the guise of a religious organization to some extent. (In the United States, many are incorporated as "religious and educational" institutions in their respective states.) A weekly meeting is usually held on Sunday morning or evening (in Germany, during the weekdays), consisting of music, an inspirational reading, and a major address on a topical issue, usually with an eye to its ethical implications. There are no symbols or ritual acts, although the English societies tend to be a bit more ceremonial. Ethical leaders officiate at life-cycle events such as marriage and funerals; they come individually from a variety of social and intellectual backgrounds and may have previous religious affiliations. There is no Ethical Culture seminary, but each prospective leader undertakes a personally tailored training program administered by the Leadership Training Committee of the American Ethical Union.

No established Ethical Culture ideology exists, although general principles certainly have been articulated. To a large extent, Adler's early motto, "Not the creed, but the deed," still serves as the unifying theoretical orientation of Ethical Culture, although with a deepened and richer meaning than Adler himself provided. Members are free to believe what they wish on all issues, including religion, but they generally subscribe to the following ideals: (1) the intrinsic worth of each human being, (2) the importance of seeking ethical principles as a guide to all aspects of life, and (3) the need to work for the material and spiritual betterment of society and humanity.

This last commitment to applied social ethics rather than to any theoretical formulation of an ethical approach has been the quintessential characteristic of Ethical Culture from its inception. In this regard, the Ethical Culture movement, particularly in the United States, has been quite successful, far beyond its limited membership. Its leaders in the first four to five decadesAdler, Salter, Weston, Coit, John L. Elliott, Alfred Martin, David Muzzey, Henry Newman, Algernon D. Black, among otherswere actively involved in most of the progressive causes of social welfare and reform. They and their societies were pioneers in the areas of education for young and old, tenement reforms, settlement work, legal aid societies, boys' clubs, good government clubs, and visiting nursing associations. Many of their venturesfree kindergarten (1877), district visiting nursing (1877), the Neighborhood Guild (1886), the Bureau of Justice (1888), the Arts High School (1913)served as models for similar undertakings by urban communities. In more recent decades, Ethical Culture, while not a leader as it once was, has nevertheless been involved with significant programs supporting liberal social causes, such as prison reform, drug rehabilitation, the right to abortion. The movement has also sponsored journals of popular and scholarly nature to reflect on the ethical domain as it relates to public policy and philosophy: Ethical Record (1888); International Journal of Ethics (1890); Ethical Addresses (1895); The Standard (1914); Ethical Outlook (1956); Ethical Forum (1965).

See Also

Adler, Felix; Morality and Religion.


The most comprehensive one-volume history of Ethical Culture is Howard B. Radest's Toward Common Ground: The Story of the Ethical Societies in the United States (New York, 1969), which deals with the origins and evolution of the movement through the 1960s. Although written by an insider, the book is not unwilling to take a critical look at the movement and its leaders. My book From Reform Judaism to Ethical Culture: The Religious Evolution of Felix Adler (Cincinnati, 1979) gives a detailed institutional history of the founding of the New York Society for Ethical Culture and forwards a careful analysis of Adler's early ideological postures. Important evaluations of the meaning of Ethical Culture can be found in Horace L. Friess's Felix Adler and Ethical Culture (New York, 1981), which traces the development of Adler's own thinking on the subject, from initial conceptions to mature reformulations. Robert S. Guttchen's Felix Adler (New York, 1974) analyzes Adler's concept of human worth, which remains vital to Ethical Culture's own self-understanding. Another important analysis of Ethical Culture has been made by David S. Muzzey in Ethics as a Religion, 2d ed. (New York, 1967). A second-generation leader in the movement, and distinguished professor of American history, Muzzey argues for the religious nature of Ethical Culture. The book contains a brief, useful epilogue on the founding of the movement by Adler.

Benny Kraut (1987)

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Ethical Culture

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