Clarence Darrow and the Ethical Society

Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center credited Clarence Darrow as an inspiration for practicing law in a way that helped the powerless. Clarence Darrow is remembered as someone whose motivations came from outside traditional religion.

I feel as I always have, that the earth is the home and the only home of man, and I am convinced that whatever he is to get out of his existence he must get while he is here.

Courtesy Library of Congress

Courtesy Library of Congress

Clarence Darrow’s father had studied to become a Unitarian minister at Meadville Theological School (then in Ohio), inspired to leave Methodism over slavery. He had been ordained, but doubts concerning God led him to start his own manufacturing business, instead. His wife also was what at the time was called a freethinker. They did name one son Channing, presumably for the early Unitarian leader, and another Everett for Edward Everett (the same Unitarian whose oration preceded Abraham Lincoln’s at Gettysburg, and was a contrast in its length of 2 hours compared to Lincoln’s very short address). Clarence was named Clarence Seward, remembering the ardent abolitionist and Republican Party founder who served as secretary of war during Lincoln’s presidency. (Darrow became associated with the Democrats in his own adulthood.)

Young Clarence was raised with the works of Thomas Paine and Charles Darwin in the house, rather than the Bible. At school, he was, as were others of the time, taught ethics from the preachings within McGuffey’s Readers. Darrow’s own story is that he became a lawyer to become rich and famous. As an adult, he owned a Bible — which he was quite familiar with, and used his knowledge to contrast the Bible’s stories with history.

After becoming a lawyer whose work took him on many travels, he often attended services on Sundays at the local Unitarian or Universalist church. When he was in Chicago, he was often seen in attendance at a Unitarian church. He also occasionally visited the Chicago Ethical Society, speaking there several times. One of his addresses was on the poetry of Robert Burns. He also lectured on Walt Whitman. He was connected with the intellectuals of Chicago, which would have meant an overlap with the early membership of the Ethical Society.

In an issue of Century Magazine, Darrow debated Ethical Society Leader Horace J. Bridges over the issue of human freedom and responsibility in crime and punishment (Darrow argued for a more deterministic, mechanistic view of the universe; his whole argument in defense of Leopold and Loeb was that they were products of their education and environment and thus not responsible for their actions).*  Both Darrow and Bridges (plus Jane Addams, another person with connections to the Ethical Society and to Unitarians and Universalists) can be seen among the signers on a 1921 document, “Christian Protest Against Anti-Semitism,” a protest against the then-circulating “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” And of course, in his involvement in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Darrow, a founding member, would have known those others among the founders connected with the Ethical Culture movement.

In 1932, Darrow visited the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a congregation that had begun its life as a freethought society and which only joined the Unitarians when assured that they would always be able to pick their own minister. The minister, John Dietrich, had been quite active locally in promoting the teaching of evolution in public schools. On September 18, that congregation announced to the press that Darrow had joined their society. But Darrow wrote a letter to the Associated Press, clarifying that he had not joined any church nor had any intention to do so. An interesting side note: that congregation has through much of its history asserted quite ardently that it is not a “church.”

Darrow officially joined the Chicago Ethical Society — his signature is on a membership application — but there’s no evidence he was particularly connected to or active in the organization.

Some quotes:

I am an agnostic as to the question of God. I think that it is impossible for the human mind to believe in an object or thing unless it can form a mental picture of such object or thing. Since man ceased to worship openly an anthropomorphic God and talked vaguely and not intelligently about some force in the universe, higher than man, that is responsible for the existence of man and the universe, he cannot be said to believe in God. One cannot believe in a force excepting as a force that pervades matter and is not an individual entity. To believe in a thing, an image of the thing must be stamped on the mind. If one is asked if he believes in such an animal as a camel, there immediately arises in his mind an image of the camel. This image has come from experience or knowledge of the animal gathered in some way or other. No such image comes, or can come, with the idea of a God who is described as a force.

If there is a soul, what is it, and where did it come from, and where does it go? Can anyone who is guided by his reason possibly imagine a soul independent of a body, or the place of its residence, or the character of it, or anything concerning it? If man is justified in any belief or disbelief on any subject, he is warranted in the disbelief in a soul. Not one scrap of evidence exists to prove any such impossible thing.


*”Crime and Punishment. The Responsibility of Criminals and the Purpose of Punishment” (with Horace J. Bridges). Century Magazine, March 1925.

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