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The Unitarian Pope: Brooke Herford’s Ministry in Chicago and Boston, 1876-1892. Alan Seaburg. Anne Miniver Press, 10`4. 182 pp. (Kindle).

If you are like me, Brooke Herford’s name is familiar yet without particular clarity. I associated him with Jabez Sunderland, and as an inveterate writer of letters to the Christian Register. I am embarrassed to learn that four of Herford’s five major settlements are places I have spent plenty of time in. Shame on me. And thank you, Alan Seaburg, for acquainting me with the man.

Seaburg’s book began as an entry for the online Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography (DUUB, accessed at, a useful complement to this volume, which is limited to the British Unitarian minister’s time in the United States. The Unitarian Pope is based primarily on round robin letters Herford (1830-1903) wrote back to friends and family in England, with the expectation that they be shared, and as such they create a portrayal of Herford from his own perspective, and set in context by Seaburg’s considerable research.

The five sections of the book cover Herford’s American settlements, which followed pastorates in Sheffield and Manchester, England. More than a third of the book is devoted to the years 1876-1882, at the Church of the Messiah (First Unitarian) in Chicago. Herford’s second American settlement, Arlington Street Church in Boston, is the concern of almost half the book, but the ten years are divided in two sections: 1882-1885, for which Seaburg had Herford’s letters, and 1885-1892, for which he did not. In 1892, Herford returned to England and served at Rosslyn Hill in London for the remainder of his days. His visit to the United States in 1895, in order to give the Dudleian Lecture at Harvard, is the subject of the short fourth section of the book, followed by Seaburg’s own brief reflections.

The role of money looms large in Herford’s story, in all sorts of interrelated and contradictory ways; some of which are dealt with directly while others remain a hidden subtext. In Chicago, the Great Fire necessitated a new building, which created a budget shortfall, which affected the minister’s salary. Herford’s reporting of the retiring of the debt is fantastic; an energetic glimpse into leadership and peer pressure as well as cultural resistance to planned financial support of the church. Herford was simultaneously attempting to transform the church into open membership – not based on owning pews. This was resisted even more in Boston than it was in Chicago, and accommodating the proprietors led Herford to initiatives such as lecture series and vesper services which brought in both “strangers” and Unitarians from other congregations. There is a lot to contemplate in these stories – the role of offertories, and even of whether to use open plates or cloth bags; the use of fairs and bazaars as fund-raisers; the idea of “stealing the preaching” and the role of higher attendance in raising the spirit rather than the dollar. Herford believed that his mission was to “feed the people.”

And yet the people, despite his interest in the Open Church movement, seem to have been a familiar type. Herford arrived in the 40 year old city of Chicago just before Reconstruction ended, and during his six years there, the African American population was ballooning. Public schools, which Herford’s children attended, were desegregated in 1874. But there is not one reference to people of color in his letters. In this sense, the congregation got the leader they wanted – i.e., “not a Parkerite.” Later, in Boston, he objected to Emily Dickinson’s poetry being published. Herford was a popular preacher who was interested in common sense and good living; a Biblical Christian without much interest in controversies (not evolution and Darwinism, not the Free Religionists or the Western Unitarian Conference. He was pro-temperance, but not given to arguing). Although he is referred to as a theological conservative, he seems more to have been conscious of social status. As do the churches who were interested in settling him and other British Unitarians, such as Robert Collyer and Stopford Brooke. Seaburg notes that the year Herford’s salary at Arlington Street was $10,000, the minister in Medford earned $600.

Seaburg’s title, The Unitarian Pope, comes from an obituary published in the Boston Evening Transcript. We may read this as a conservative label, but in fact what it describes is strong leadership, for all Unitarians. In conversation about this book, Richard Kellaway pointed out that William J. Potter, the leader of the Free Religionists, preached at Arlington Street Church in 1885, during Herford’s tenure. This is not an invitation that a truly conservative Unitarian would have extended, and Kellaway, the biographer of Potter, is sure that the radical was far too reticent to have initiated a pulpit exchange.

These are difficult hairs to split – social status can’t exist without inequality, and of course relies on a comfort with the legal and political structures that create and maintain wealth for some. Herford was certainly not a reformer, or even a theologian. Despite his own more traditional understanding of religion, he got along well with Jenkin Lloyd Jones in Chicago, and evidently with Potter in Massachusetts. But controversy found him nevertheless. In between his departure from Arlington Street Church to Rosslyn Hill, and his return to Cambridge for the Dudleian lecture, Herford protested a statement made by Ida B. Wells, touring Great Britain on an anti-lynching campaign. Wells said that the press and the pulpit in the southern states encouraged the lynching of black people, and Herford characterized this as a terrible misrepresentation. He drew a distinction between people following laws and those encouraging murder. Herford was influential in diluting the language of the anti-lynching society, but the doubts he cast spurred Wells to ever more thorough investigative reporting. As recently as October of 2016, Rosemary Bray McNatt spoke about Herford in this context at a UUHHS/Collegium convo scholars talk.

Seaburg’s text contains a few stray typos, and I would have enjoyed the ability to refer to a family tree at times (Herford’s family spread out across the country in interesting ways – from a playhouse in Wayland to a ranch in Wyoming). The e-book format makes endnotes inaccessible while reading the text (at least on my e-reader). But these are small quibbles. The book allows us to be immersed in Herford’s life; in the life of a liberal minister trying to make his way 150 years ago; moving with spouse and children over the seas and across the continent; devoted to the church and trying to open its doors. He comes across as a true pastor, and concerned with growth in all the ways we grapple with the topic today. It is fascinating, and Alan Seaburg has restored both Herford’s voice, and the streets he inhabited.

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