Fenn, William W. (William Wallace), 1862-1932

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William Wallace Fenn (1862-1932), Unitarian minister and Bussey Professor of Theology at the Harvard Divinity School (1900-1932) was a scholar of New England religious life and thought. He served as Dean of the Harvard Divinity School from 1906-1922.

From the description of Papers of William Wallace Fenn, 1874-1932. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 76972776

Epithet: novelist

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000981.0x0002a5

William Wallace Fenn (1862-1932) graduated from the Boston Latin School in 1881, Harvard College in 1884, and Harvard Divinity School in 1887. He was ordained at the Unity Church of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1890. From 1891 to 1900, Rev. Fenn was the pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. While remaining pastor of First Unitarian in Chicago, Rev. Fenn also held the Shaw Lectureship in Biblical Literature at Meadville Theological School in Pennsylvania from 1892 to 1901, and again from 1905 to 1907. In addition to these duties, Rev. Fenn also served on the Harvard Board of Preachers from 1896 to 1898, and again from 1902 to 1905. In 1900 Rev. Fenn left Chicago to accept the Bussey Professorship of Theology at Harvard Divinity School. Rev. Fenn was named the Dean of Harvard Divinity School in 1906 and served in this capacity until 1922. Rev. Fenn did not publish extensively, but his Essex Hall Lectures in London were published in 1924 as The Christian Way of Life as Illustrated in the History of Religion in New England, and his Harvard Ingersoll Lectures were published as Immortality and Theism in 1921.

From the guide to the Papers, 1886-1932., (Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School)

William Wallace Fenn, Unitarian minister and Bussey Professor of Theology at the Harvard Divinity School (1900-1932), was a scholar of New England religious life and thought. He was recognized as an able administrator, energetic lecturer, and understanding friend.

Fenn was born on February 12, 1862 in Boston, Massachusetts to William Wallace and Hannah Morrill (Osgood) Fenn. Fenn's father worked as a clerk in a Boston hardware store and died less than seven weeks after his birth. He was an only child.

After graduating from the Boston Latin School in 1880, Fenn attended Harvard College and received his Bachelor of Arts in 1884. Fenn continued his graduate studies in New Testament theology at the Harvard Divinity School and received Master of Arts and Bachelor of Scared Theology degrees in 1887. Several years later in 1908, Fenn was given an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the Divinity School.

As a young man, Fenn was a member of the Boston Mount Vernon Congregational Church. During his studies at Harvard he began to question his religious beliefs and converted to Unitarianism. Although he intended to teach upon graduation from Harvard University, financial considerations influenced his decision to seek a job as a minister.

Fenn's active ministry lasted thirteen years. In October 1887, he became minister of the newly organized Unity Church of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. During his stay in Pittsfield, Fenn oversaw the development of a strong and growing organization and the building of a new church building. In May 1891, Fenn accepted a ministerial position at the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. In Chicago, Fenn took a leading part in the missionary work of the American Unitarian Association in the western United States and again oversaw the building of a Unitarian chapel, this time near the University of Chicago. In concurrence with his ministerial duties, Fenn also served as the Shaw Lecturer on Biblical Literature at the Meadville Theological School in Chicago from 1892 to 1901 and later from 1905 to 1907. He also maintained his ties to Harvard University by serving as a member of the Board of Preachers from 1896 to 1898 and again from 1902 to 1905. Fenn left Chicago in March 1901 after he was invited to become the Bussey Professor of Theology at Harvard University.

Fenn was a loyal spokesman for the Unitarian church. He avoided emotional appeals in his preaching and believed in a more academic presentation of theology that he termed the "thinking pulpit". He advocated a pragmatic and functional approach to religion and called into question the major tenets of the increasingly dominant views of "liberal optimism". Fenn emphasized that Christianity was a layman's religion and that Jesus saw the world from a layman's point of view. He promoted a "General Theism" in which the universe found its unity in a vast controlling purpose. The primary religious goal of man was to discover the values of this controlling purpose and devote ones life to them.

Fenn taught at the Harvard Divinity School from 1901 until his death in 1932. He served as Dean of the school from 1906 to 1922. The most important event to take place during Fenn's tenure as dean was the merging of the Divinity School with the Andover Theological Seminary in 1922. The new school was named The Theological School in Harvard University from 1923 to 1933, after which the school returned to using Harvard Divinity School.

Prior to teaching at Harvard, Fenn's main interests of study involved the New Testament. However, after he began teaching at the Divinity School, Fenn expanded his course offerings to include new classes in Christian mysticism, theism, and New England Theology. Fenn was characterized as an exceptional teacher whose lectures were orderly, lucid, stimulating, and sometimes, eloquent. He was eager to awaken the minds of his students and respectful of their intelligence. Fenn tried never to impose his own views upon any of his students and insisted that they judge the merits of the theological systems described to them. Fenn was noted for the high standards that he maintained in the preparation of his courses and his excellent pastoral relations with his students both in school and after graduation. Moreover, Fenn was considered a prominent and highly respected figure with exceptional intellectual abilities, a great reserve and modesty about his own talents, and a thorough scholar.

Fenn studied the development of New England religious thought from the early days of Puritan settlements to the advent of early nineteenth century religious liberalism and became an acknowledged expert in this field. However, Fenn was reluctant to publish his research over his lifetime because he feared that his ideas might become fixed and inflexible. Nevertheless, some of the sermons and lectures that Fenn presented were published for distribution to a wider audience. His most noted writings were: The Revolt against the Standing Order in The Religious History of New England: King's Chapel Lectures (1917), Immortality and Theism (1921), The Christian Way of Life as Illustrated in the History of Religion in New England (1924), and The Theological Method of Jesus (published posthumously in 1938). In addition, Fenn published several booklets for Sunday school while still a minister in Chicago from 1890 to 1900.

Fenn was married to Faith Huntington Fisher of Lanesboro, Massachusetts on May 28, 1891. They had five children: Dorothy, Wallace, Roger, Donald, and Dan.

William Wallace Fenn died on March 6, 1932 after a brief illness and was buried in Weston, Vermont.

References used for this biography: Dawson, Percy M.In Memoriam: Dean Fenn.Unity 109, no. 8 (1932) : 125. Evans, Daniel (1944). William Wallace Fenn. In Dictionary of American Biography Supplements 1-2: To 1940. American Council of Learned Societies, 1944-1958. Retrieved February 23, 2004, from Biography Resource Center database. William Wallace Fenn.The Christian Register 3, no. 2 (1932) : 173-174. Fenn, William Wallace.William Wallace Fenn: His Journal Together with Pertinent Letters and News Items.Concord, Massachusetts: published posthumously by Dorothy Fenn Duncan,1973. Foote, Henry Wilder.William Wallace Fenn, A Memoir. In Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, volume 65, 1-4. Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1940. Stephen D. Glazier.Fenn, William Wallace; http://80-www.anb.org.ezp1.harvard.edu/ articles/08/08-00462.html; American National Biography Online February 2000. Access Date: Monday February 23 13:44:11 EST 2004. The Theological School in Harvard University. In Memoriam: William Wallace Fenn, 1862-1932. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Harvard University Press, 1932.

From the guide to the Papers of William Wallace Fenn, 1874-1932, (Harvard University Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Papers of William Wallace Fenn, 1874-1932 Harvard University Archives.
referencedIn Papers, 1885-1950. Andover-Harvard Theological Library
referencedIn Ford, James, 1884-1944. Social ethics seminary [transcript], October 11, 1926 / James Ford, Richard C. Cabot, Sheldon Glueck, William W. Fenn, and William Thomas Ham. Harvard University Archives.
referencedIn Vol. XCV ( ff. 294 ). 11 Jan. 1866 -22 Mar. 1873.includes:f. 1 William Stubbs, Bishop of Chester and (1889) of Oxford: Letters to [R.?] Bentley: 1862, 1866.f. 2 Lady Georgiana Charlotte Fullerton, novelist and philanthropist: Letter to, and busi... British Library
creatorOf Papers, 1886-1932. Andover-Harvard Theological Library
referencedIn Bowen, Clayton Raymond, 1877-1934. Papers, 1889-1994. Andover-Harvard Theological Library
referencedIn Papers, 1862-1933. Andover-Harvard Theological Library
referencedIn Gannett, Lewis, 1891-1966. Papers, 1681-1966 (bulk 1900-1960) Houghton Library
referencedIn William Ernest Hocking papers Houghton Library
referencedIn William Robert Hutchison collection of photographs of American Protestants in the modernist movement, ca. 1977. Harvard University, Divinity School Library
referencedIn Harvard University Archives Photograph Collection: Portraits, ca. 1852-ca. 2004 Harvard University Archives.
referencedIn Moore, Edward Caldwell, 1857-1943. Papers, 1869-1943 (inclusive). Harvard University, Divinity School Library
referencedIn Papers of Professor Henry William Wilder Foote and Family, 1714-1959 Andover-Harvard Theological Library
creatorOf Fenn, William W. (William Wallace), 1862-1932. Papers of William Wallace Fenn, 1874-1932. Harvard University Archives.
referencedIn Eliot, Samuel A. (Samuel Atkins), 1862-1950. Papers, 1885-1950 (inclusive). Harvard University, Divinity School Library
referencedIn Hutchison, William Robert. Collection of photographs of American Protestants in the Modernist Movement, ca. 1977. Andover-Harvard Theological Library
referencedIn Law School Society of Phillips Brooks House (Harvard University). Records of the Law School Society of Phillips Brooks House, 1911-1916. Harvard University Archives.
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
correspondedWith Bowen, Clayton Raymond, 1877-1934 person
correspondedWith Charles Carroll Everett person
correspondedWith Clay MacCauley person
associatedWith Eliot, Samuel A. (Samuel Atkins), 1862-1950. person
associatedWith Ford, James, 1884-1944. person
correspondedWith Gannett, Lewis, 1891-1966 person
associatedWith George F. Noyes person
associatedWith Harvard Divinity School corporateBody
associatedWith Harvard University corporateBody
correspondedWith Hocking, William Ernest, 1873-1966 person
associatedWith Hutchison, William Robert. person
correspondedWith John A. Bellows person
correspondedWith John C. Perkins person
associatedWith Law School Society of Phillips Brooks House (Harvard University) corporateBody
correspondedWith Marion Noyes person
associatedWith Moore, Edward Caldwell, 1857-1943. person
correspondedWith Paul Revere Frothingham person
associatedWith Ralph Waldo Emerson person
Place Name Admin Code Country


Birth 1862

Death 1932


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