Ethical Culture, Society for

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ETHICAL CULTURE, SOCIETY FOR. Felix Adler (1851–1933) founded the Society for Ethical Culture in New York City in 1876. The Society began as a weekly lecture program, but soon developed into a curious combination of a religious organization and a social movement. Adler was the son of an American Reform rabbi and was groomed for the pulpit, but his religious beliefs were transformed after his exposure to Kantian philosophy and the historical analysis of religion during his postgraduate study in Germany. Adler concluded that all religious principles were based upon a common set of values, and he developed a new system of belief, called "Ethical Culture," that transcended denominational boundaries. Ethical Culture was based on the intrinsic worth and goodness of the individual, the universal character of moral law, and the imperative to apply ethical principles to modern society. It rejected theological distinctions, and its adherents were unified by their performance of ethical deeds. The Society for Ethical Culture was the institutional center of the Ethical Culture movement.

Adler considered Ethical Culture to be a religion, and even developed a metaphysical explanation of its structure and ideals. The Society, however, also functioned as a vehicle for social reform and was devoted to addressing the social problems created by industrialization in late nineteenth-century America. It played an important role in the reform movements of the Progressive Era and maintained close ties to the Settlement House Movement. Many of the society's projects, such as its free kindergarten and district nursing programs, served as early models for later urban reformers.

Adler's followers created new branches of the society in many other American cities and in Europe. In 1889, the American societies were consolidated into a national organization, the American Ethical Union. The movement has endured into the twenty-first century, maintaining branches throughout the United States.


Kraut, Benny. From Reform Judaism to Ethical Culture: The Religious Evolution of Felix Adler. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1979.

Radest, Howard B. Toward Common Ground: The Story of the Ethical Societies in the United States. New York: Ungar, 1969.

Mia SaraBruch

Society for Ethical Culture

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SOCIETY FOR ETHICAL CULTURE. SeeEthical Culture, Society for .

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Society for Ethical Culture