Dietrich, John H. (John Hassler), 1878-

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1878
Death 1957

Biographical notes:

John Hassler Dietrich (1878-1957), a prominent Unitarian clergyman and an intellectual leader (1920s-1940s) of its humanist wing, was the son of Jerome Dietrich, "director of the poor" in Marks, Pennsylvania. Descended from Swiss Reformed Church immigrants who settled in central Pennsylvania in 1710, Dietrich graduated from Mercersberg (Pa.) Preparatory school (1896), Franklin and Marshall College (Lancaster, Pa., 1900), and Eastern Theological Seminary (1905).

Dietrich's first pulpit (1905-1911) was St. Mark's Reformed Church in Pittsburgh. Although very popular with his congregation, Dietrich began running afoul of the Reformed Church hierarchy with his increasingly liberal interpretations of scripture. In 1911, after Dietrich had twice opened his pulpit to a local rabbi, the Allegheny Classis of the Reformed Church charged him with heresy. The Classis accused him of heterodoxy in five areas: his unbelief in scriptural infallibility, his unbelief in the infallibility of the Heidelberg Catechism, his unbelief in the virgin birth of Jesus, his unbelief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his unbelief in eternal punishment. Although he had mounted a defense of his position on paper, Dietrich decided, in the interest of his congregation, not to fight the charges. He resigned his ministry and his Reformed Church membership in July 1911; shortly thereafter he accepted ordination in the American Unitarian Association (AUA).

His first appointment was to the First Unitarian Society, Spokane, Washington, in November 1911. Under Dietrich's leadership, especially due to his intellectual energy and his inspirational preaching, the Society's weekly service attendance soon increased from 200 to over 1000, forcing them to hold services in a converted theater. His success was marked within the AUA and, in 1916, he was urged to take over the recently vacated pulpit of the First Unitarian Society, Minneapolis, which had early been a stronghold of Unitarianism.

Dietrich's Spokane success was repeated in Minneapolis, which soon had to refit a downtown theater to accommodate Sunday service attendees. Dietrich's religious thought had been rapidly evolving from liberal theism to a humanism that was grounded in scientific empiricism and was largely agnostic. From the mid-1920s, he occupied a position on the left wing of American Unitarianism. Dietrich preached a social gospel, and was a strong advocate for evolution, birth control, world government, and scientific naturalism. As a result, his congregation hosted many important speakers, including Zona Gale, Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, Norman Thomas, and Margaret Sanger. During the 1920s and 1930s, Dietrich's Sunday addresses were broadcast on the radio, and many were published and widely disseminated, thus extending his reach. He thereby became an important voice against religious orthodoxy and secular traditionalism.

Dietrich's intellectual influence continued strong through his 1938 retirement from his Minneapolis position. In 1941 he retired to Berkeley, California, where he continued to write and to speak occasionally. He died in Berkeley in 1957.

Biographical information was taken from the papers.

From the guide to the John H. Dietrich papers., 1905-1987., (Minnesota Historical Society)

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Subjects:

  • Christian heresies
  • Humanism, Religious
  • Religious thought--20th century
  • Religion and science--1900-1925
  • Religion and science--1926-1945
  • Theology--20th century
  • Reformed Church in the United States--Doctrines
  • Unitarians--Clergy
  • Unitarianism
  • Unitarians--Sermons
  • Unitarianism--United States
  • Religious thought--United States--20th century
  • Heresies, Christian--Pennsylvania--Pittsburgh
  • Natural theology

Occupations:

  • Clergy--Minnesota--Minneapolis

Places:

  • Minnesota--Minneapolis (as recorded)
  • Minneapolis (Minn.) (as recorded)
  • Pittsburgh (Pa.) (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania--Pittsburgh (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Minneapolis (Minn.) (as recorded)
  • Pittsburgh (Pa.) (as recorded)