A Brief History of the Ethical Culture Movement

Now the daring thought that we had, in the beginning of the Ethical Movement, was to unite in one group, in one bond, those who had this religious feeling and those who simply cared for the moral betterment…. In the broader sense religion means zealousness and devotion to something supreme, in the special sense it means cosmic outreaching. Now I myself have always been a religious person in the second sense, and never a mere moralist. But I founded this Society with the express purpose and intent that it should not consist only of those who stood as I did, who had the same religious feeling and needs, but that it should be open to all those who believed in moral betterment, because that is the point on which we all agree. Our ethical religion has its basis in the effort to improve the world and ourselves morally.”

— Dr. Felix Adler

In 1876 Dr. Felix Adler founded the Ethical Culture Movement which proclaimed a vision of humanity united in common concern for ethical values. Our Ethical Societies are fellowships of people who seek a clarification of the values of life and a faith to live by. We cherish freedom of the mind and freedom of conscience. We assert the autonomy of ethics while we tolerate a plurality of philosophies. We affirm and promote the following principles which are integral to our Ethical Movement:

Every person has inherent worth; each person is unique.
We affirm the dignity and worth of all human beings, however different their abilities or backgrounds. Worth is independent of the idea of value. Value is dependent upon the contribution a person makes to society while worth exists independent of productivity. From the idea of universal human worth follows the right of every person to food, shelter, clothing, health, safety, education, work, play, respect, and affection. Every person is unique and different, and the development of each person is related to nurturing his/her distinct qualities and talents.

It is our responsibility to improve the quality of life for ourselves and others.
We connect personal and social ethics by recognizing the principle of reciprocity in human relations. We affirm that any action which brings out the distinctive worth in others brings out the distinctive worth in one’s self; also, any action which demeans others demeans one’s self.

Ethics are derived from human experience.
Many religions locate the source of ethics in God-given commandments, we find its source in the human condition. What is right or wrong, good or bad is so because it fosters the development of what is best in life. Human intelligence and feelings are the sources and human experience is the sanction of ethics. We grow ethically by increasing our capacity for bringing out the best in others and ourselves. This process begins in the family and extends into friendships and local community and reaches out in relationship to the global human community.

Life is sacred, interrelated and interdependent.
Life is a great, mysterious gift. We affirm our respect for the interdependent web of existence, of which we are all a part. It is our commitment to the goal of a world community with peace, liberty, justice or all.

Although the Ethical Culture Movement started with Dr. Felix Adler, there are many strands which contributed to it. In fact the Ethical movement is part of the long history of the effort of human beings to find meaning and purpose in life. It is part of a continuity with the past; it grew out of the religions of Judaism and Christianity. The Ethical Movement shares the heritage of the ethical religions. It is a “religion of duty” which Dr. Adler brought to life, a religion united on the common ground of moral action.
Some of the strands of ethical humanism can be traced back to the days of the ancient Greeks: From the humanist spirit of the ancient Greeks where human beings were said to be the “measure of all things,” through the Middle Ages when humanistic non-theism was an undercurrent of the time, into the Renaissance when there was a renewed interest in the concept of human dignity. The thoughts of Spinoza, Kant and Comte in Europe and Emerson, Frances Wright and Margaret Fuller in America entered into the philosophy of the Ethical Culture Movement.

Emerson called for a new ethical church: “There will be a new church founded on moral science, at first cold and naked, a babe in a manger again, the algebra and mathematics of ethical law. The church…will have heaven and earth for its beams and rafters, science for symbol and illustrations; it will fast enough gather beauty, music, picture and poetry.” Emerson and Dr. Adler supported the Free Religious Movement and the call for an ethical religion. In 1876 Dr. Adler founded the Society for Ethical Culture in New York City.

The ideas of Dr. Adler and his precursors were accepted and spread during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Ethical Societies were formed in Chicago (1883), Philadelphia (1885), St. Louis (1886). By 1960, 28 Ethical Societies were in existence in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Since its inception the Ethical Culture Movement has been in the forefront of movements to improve human welfare. It has exerted influence well beyond its numerical strength in the areas of education, housing, labor and settlement work. The Movement was responsible for establishing the first free Kindergarten in the East in 1878 in New York City. Improvements in housing in the slum areas were made and are still being made because of the activities of Leaders and members of Ethical Societies.

The John Lovejoy Elliott houses in New York are a tribute to the special work and energy of this Leader. It was Dr. Elliott who created the Hudson Guild Settlement which became an oasis for play, craft activities, fun and conversation for so many young people. The Ethical Culture Movement fought for Child Labor Laws; the Ethical members.

It is through such action that ethical values became meaningful and are given substance. Activities at the present time include work in the educational programs of Encampment for Citizenship, Planetary Citizens, Beyond War, visions of Peace, in the work for sane nuclear policy and in the whole area of racial integration and economic justice as it touches the lives of all people.

In 1889 the American Ethical Union was established in New York. It is the federation of all the Ethical Societies and groups in the United States. The AEU holds a National Assembly at least biennially to establish policies by vote of delegates; it publishes pamphlets, books, a quarterly newsletter called Dialogue, a religious education newsletter called Synapsis, and a professional journal, The Journal of Humanism and Ethical Religion.

Ethical Societies in AEU have a common commitment to a religious and ethical emphasis, congregational affiliations, family life and ethical education, ceremonies, and the Sunday Meeting. The AEU is a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union which includes groups from Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Germany, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the former Yugoslavia, India, Japan. Yet each Ethical Culture Society is a self-governing body and conducts its own Sunday Meeting, decides in its own religious and ethical education programs as well as its own social service and social action programs and projects for members and non-members alike.

Our Ethical Movement represents a thread in history which sides with humanity. In the words of Arthur Dobrin, Leader of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island:

When we join the Ethical Movement we do so not because we are fleeing from our past but because we now accept a new form that for us is deeper and more meaningful. We desire to enter a wider spiritual fellowship, united with men and women of every heritage. What we seek is a reverence for a human personality, a passion for social justice and an attempt to apply the best of the world’s wisdom to contemporary living.
Adapted from the AEU Core Curriculum, Teacher’s Handbook, prepared by Pat Hoertdoerfer, former AEU Director of Religious Education.