Chaffee, Edmund Bigelow, 1887-1936.

Hide Profile

Edmund Bigelow Chaffee was born on a farm at Rose Centre, Michigan, on February 19, 1887, the son of John and Marietta Chaffee. If we give credence to the idea that the child born into an affectionate, sober and industrious family will develop these same traits then we need go no further to discover an excellent example. At the time of their marriage, his mother was a widow, a father a widower, and as each of them had at least two children by their previous unions, the new son was at once surrounded by half brothers and sisters a good deal older than he, who gave him much love and affection.

Edmund Chaffee's father died when he was eight years old, but his mother, with the aid of his sisters, Mary and Margaret, determined he should have the best education available. The earliest written record of Edmund's scholastic progress is a report card for the 10th grade, dated 1902. The teacher has written across the card, "To show your son someday in the future." He had ranked FIRST in his class.

In 1909, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan, and as he had already decided on a career in the law, he entered the University of Michigan Law School. Then something quite unpredictable happened. In his first year of law he decided to devote his life to the ministry. According to his diary, the decision was somewhat sudden and dramatic. Actually, he had been doing pulpit work at small churches in the vicinity of the University and had enjoyed the experience. At the end of his first year of law he interrupted his education to serve as lay assistant at the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church in Detroit. The following year he obtained his degree of Doctor of Jurisprudence and was then ready to take up his theological studies.

The next two years, 1913-1915, he spent at Hartford Theological Seminary, in Hartford, Connecticut. He himself says of this period, "In the summer of 1914 I was assistant in the Maverick Church in East Boston, Massachusetts. This was a church which was meeting the new industrial problem in a constructive way."

From 1915 to 1916 he attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City, graduating in 1916 with the degree of Bachelor of Divinity. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in April of that same year, but not until an ordination controversy ensued over his beliefs that agitated the Presbyterian Church from coast to coast.

It should be recalled that 1916 preceded the Scopes Trial in which the Presbyterian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan played such a prominent role. The theology espoused by Edmund Chaffee, candidate for Licensure and Ordination, had quite a different connotation in 1916 than it would today. He asserted in a paper read before the Committee on Licensure and Ordination: 'I . More specifically, with regard to the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, the evidence in the New Testament is, at best, relatively slight.... Frankly, I do not know what happened at the beginning of the formation of the body of Jesus, and I do not feel disposed to speculate. But this I do know, viz. --that far more important than physiological processes are the life and character and influence of Jesus. These facts are for me a constant, even an increasing, wonder and inspiration. Jesus is the highest that I know in human life. . .

There was more in this statement than this excerpt, but it did not soften or erode this central view. The confrontation only confirmed what most of his associates already knew--that here was a man of conviction who would fight for what he believed was right. Eight years later he was to declare, "My primary interest in life is in interpreting the spirit of Jesus to the masses of men and women who have to work for their living."

After his ordination he became assistant pastor in the Greenwich Presbyterian Church in New York City. Again controversy struck. The pastor, William Fincke, was an ardent pacifist, and so was Chaffee. When the United States entered World War I they found themselves out of tune with their congregation. The dispute reached such proportions that Fincke and Chaffee resigned.

He then became associate pastor at the Church of the Good Shepherd, leaving after a short stay to join the American Red Cross in Palestine. He emerged a Captain in the Red Cross, returning home in 1920 by the way of the Orient, where he observed and studied economic and social conditions in India, China, Korea and Japan.

In that same year two far-reaching events in his life took place. He married Florence Mearns, a Red Cross associate in Palestine and he was named Associate Director of Labor Temple. Florence Mearns proved to be-the love of his life, and as a hard working, loyal, cheerful, energetic and witty wife the was able to serve her "Ted" wondrously well. In the Labor Temple he was to find an instrument for the work to which he would devote the rest of his life.

To understand the Labor Temple organization requires a glance at its early history. The Fourteenth Street Presbyterian Church of the lower East Side had declined to the point where it was merged with the Thirteenth Street Church on the lower West Side, becoming the Greenwich Presbyterian Church, where, as we have seen, Dr. Chaffee had been associate pastor in 1916.

In 1910, the Reverend Charles Stelzle had taken over a vacant Fourteenth Street Church Building to found a new sort of Sunday School for working people. His idea was that working people could be evangelized through a Sunday School, with emphasis on the School. He called the institution he established The Labor Temple. In 1913, he brought a remarkable man to help him in the person of the Reverend Jonathan C. Day, whose chief interest was in developing the social settlement work of the Labor Temple. Jonathan Day brought in return a talented young intellectual in the person of Will Durant. Durant's interest was in the School of Stelzle original concept, but without the evangelical features, and he lectured every week on a variety of philosophical and cultural subjects. Furthermore, Jonathan Day, feeling in his capacity as a Presbyterian minister that the spiritual needs of the neighborhood should not be neglected, organized the American International Church. By the time Edmund Chaffee was named Associate Director, the combined School and Church was an East Side fixture. In June of 1921, he was made full Director of the entire enterprise.

From that moment on, he plunged into the work of Labor Temple and the Presbyterian Church with an almost superhuman strength and zeal. It seemed as though he was always prepared with the proper answer to the question of the moment, and he had a rare gift of disarming an opponent and winning him over without arousing rancor and ill feeling. Many men observed and felt his charm, and he could count his friends in every walk of life. Politicians, settlement workers, Congressmen, millionaires, lawyers, doctors and humble workers were his devoted friends and admirers. Norman Thomas, Paul Blanshard, Theodore Savage, John Nevin Sayre, George Richards, Gerald Nye, John Haynes Holmes, Kirby Page, and Henry Sloan Coffin were only a handful of the men who early came to recognize the rare qualities he possessed in such abundance.

Soon he was writing articles for John Haynes Holmes' publication Unity, then for the Christian Century and many other magazines, and finally he was editor of the Presbyterian Tribune. Whether addressing the General Assembly of the Presbytery, a YWCA Conference, or a Labor Temple Forum, his central theme was always the same. As he had declared it in 1925, "My primary interest in life is in interpreting the spirit of Jesus to the masses of men and women who have to work for their living."

Under his guidance the Labor Temple quickly outgrew its ancient quarters, and a new and resplendent Temple was built on the old location. In the fall of 1925, the Labor Temple was comfortably settled in the new building.

Will Durant left the Temple in 1927. Gustavus Francis Beck, the religious editor of Macmillan's came to Labor Temple as a lecturer that same year. He was an American educated in Germany and England who possessed a keen knowledge and appreciation of the classics and philosophy. By 1928, he was the Director of Labor Temple School and lecturing on such learned topics as Sophocles, Voltaire, Euripedes, Dostoevski, Plato and scores of other subjects equally as difficult and erudite. John Cowper Powys lectured on the Great Romantic Writers. Norman Thomas lectured on Economics. There were courses on Speech Improvement, Poetry, Current Events, Anthropology, The New Morality, The New Psychology, and other subjects. Sunday evenings at 7:30,

Dr. Chaffee addressed the American International Church Congregation on such topics as the following, taken from the 1928 Fall Program; Churches and Politics, Is Jesus Any Guide for Today?, Moral Issues in This Campaign, The Kellogg Pact--Does It Outlaw War?, Moral Gains and Losses Since 1918, Is the Church Slipping? Can a Social Revolution Come Without Violence?, and Science and God.

The guest speakers were the Who's Who of that era. There were the Doctors Abraham and Hannah Stone, Senator Royal S. Copeland, Professor Mark Van Doren, William J. Perlman, Harry A. Overstreet, Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Elmer Barnes, W. F. Calverton, Samuel Schmalhausen, Bishop Francis J. McConnell, Jerome Davis and many, many more shining intellects of that period_ In addition to these adult activities, there were for children the play hours, vocational and gymnastic programs as well as Violin Lessons for beginners and advanced students. There were many other courses equally exciting for young and old; Live Books and People; The Labor Temple Players and the Drama; Concert and Poetry Recital; The Making of the Modern Mind, The Art Class; American Social Politics; Our Own Times Forum; The Marriage Consultation Center and The Dance, to name but a few.

In short, Labor Temple was in full swing. As many as 175,000 people a year enjoyed its many courses. Immigrants on the lower East Side came in droves, eager to exchange their hard earned money for a better understanding of the world and of Christianity.

In one year, Dr. Chaffee took an active part in the programs of many major organizations, including such divergent subjects as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Minister's Union of America, the Committee of Five, Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the Committee on Social and Industrial Relations of the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the War Registers League. In addition, there were the many audiences before whom he spoke and his services as fill-in pastor for his friends among the clergy, all of which took much hard work and time.

When the Great Depression came, Labor Temple was severely hit. Sources of revenue dried up. Labor Temple members were out of work, and many of them were starving. The years 1932 to 1933 were probably the worst for Dr. Chaffee. Want and deprivation surrounded Labor Temple like the lapping waves of an ocean. No one was ever turned away. Finally, the doors of the American International Church itself were thrown open each night to allow the homeless and dispossessed to sleep in the pews and on the floors. For a time, the Temple itself was threatened. Its Financial Crisis came in 1934, but after a long and anxious struggle it was saved. Times were truly desperate, but they seemed to strengthen rather than weaken Dr. Chaffee's faith in his religion and in his fellow man. He threw himself into his labors with an ever greater abandon and the hard work and long hours left their toll.

He might have rested on his laurels, but it was not his way. He put the Labor Temple on a firm foundation; he attended innumerable conferences and gave hundreds of speeches on subjects dear to his heart and his religious beliefs; he wrote and published his book, The Protestant Churches and the Industrial Crisis; and he assumed the heavy task of the editorship of the Presbyterian Tribune.

Honors and recognition came to him from every quarter. In 1936, Syracuse University conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity. He had purchased a farm in New Hampshire where, surrounded by his wife and two children, Margaret and Dugald, he could return for brief moments to the rural life of his boyhood.

On September 15, 1936, he was at St. Paul attending the Minnesota State Conference of Social Work. He had just begun his address at a dinner meeting when he collapsed. Death came within fifteen minutes.

His headstone, at Rose Centre where he is buried, and a bronze plaque to his memory at Labor Temple, bear the identical inscriptions: “Servant of God and Man, Toiler for Peace and Justice.”

Eloquent as this tribute seems, it would be remiss to close this sketch of Edmund Bigelow Chaffee with only these words. To him and his fellow workers had come a conviction, distilled from the dark and bitter days of the depression that the social position of the church had been tried and found wanting. From the beginning, the New York Times of February 25, 1967, was to report that the social stand of the church had indeed changed, for on that day the majority of the Presbyteries ratified the proposed confession of 1967, "pin-pointing three specific so-called missions for the contemporary church; racial integration, the quest for peace, and the abolition of poverty."

In the ceaseless search for truth and knowledge, no accomplishments are ever completely lost or obscured. Perhaps the confession of 1967 must be the final evaluation of the work of Edmund Bigelow Chaffee.

From the guide to the Edmund B. Chaffee Papers, 1902-1937, (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Young People's Peace Conference (1933 : New York, N.Y.). Young People's Peace Conference transcript, 1933. Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College
creatorOf Edmund B. Chaffee Papers, 1902-1937 Syracuse University. Library. Special Collections Research Center
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith American Society for Psychical Research (1906- ). corporateBody
associatedWith Barnes, Harry Elmer, 1889-1968 person
associatedWith Cadman, S. Parkes (Samuel Parkes), 1864-1936 person
associatedWith Copeland, Royal Samuel, 1868-1938 person
associatedWith Durant, Will, 1885-1981 person
associatedWith Eddy, George Sherwood, 1871- person
associatedWith Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. corporateBody
associatedWith Fellowship of Faith. corporateBody
associatedWith Fellowship of Reconciliation (U.S.) corporateBody
associatedWith Fosdick, Harry Emerson, 1878-1969 person
associatedWith Gannett, Lewis Stiles, 1891- person
associatedWith Hays, Arthur Garfield, 1881-1954 person
associatedWith Heckscher, August, 1913- person
associatedWith Hillman, Sidney. person
associatedWith Holmes, John Haynes, 1879-1964 person
associatedWith Labor Temple (Presbyterian) corporateBody
associatedWith La Guardia, Fiorello H. (Fiorello Henry), 1882-1947 person
associatedWith Lehman, Herbert H. (Herbert Henry), 1878-1963 person
associatedWith Lewis, J. L. (John L.). person
associatedWith Markham, Edwin, 1852-1940 person
associatedWith Muste, Abraham John, 1885-1967 person
associatedWith Niebuhr, Reinhold, 1892-1971 person
associatedWith Nye, Gerald Prentice, 1892-1971 person
associatedWith Page, Kirby, 1890-1957 person
associatedWith Peale, Norman Vincent, 1898-1993 person
associatedWith Pollock, Channing, 1880-1946 person
associatedWith Powys, John Cowper, 1872-1963 person
associatedWith Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. corporateBody
associatedWith Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Clergy. corporateBody
associatedWith Richards, George H. person
associatedWith Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945 person
associatedWith Smith, Alfred Emanuel, 1873-1944 person
associatedWith Speers, Thomas Guthrie, 1890- person
associatedWith Thomas, Norman, 1884-1968 person
associatedWith Union Theological Seminary (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Villard, Oswald Garrison, 1872-1949 person
associatedWith Walker, John James, 1881-1946 person
associatedWith Wise, Stephen Samuel, 1874-1949 person
associatedWith Wood, Clement, 1888-1950 person
associatedWith Young Men's Christian Associations. corporateBody
associatedWith Young People's Peace Conference (1933 : New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Young Women's Christian Associations. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Communism--Religious aspects
Religion and politics
Pacifism--Religious aspects
Socialism, Religious aspects
New York State
Activism and social reform
Church and labor
Religious education of adults
Clergy--United States
Christianity and politics
Christian sociology
Religion and labor
Educators--United States
Clergy--Political activity
War--Religious aspects--Christianity
Religion and philosophy
Adult education--United States
Presbyterians--United States
Sermons, American
Church and clergy


Birth 1887

Death 1936

Related Descriptions


Ark ID: w6jh6wj5

SNAC ID: 73709697