Contents: July/August 2002
A. Powell Davies, preacher to the nation
by Warren R. Ross
Born in England in 1902 and ordained as a Methodist, Davies moved to the United States in 1928 and soon became a Unitarian, crowning his career as minister of All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., from 1944 until his death in 1957.
Citing him as one of America's outstanding clergymen, Time magazine said that in Washington, "where many talk but few listen . . . Davies is a man who is heard," while the Washington Post described him as "militantly in the forefront of every assault upon intolerance and racial discrimination and injustice."
His eloquence and courage were matched by keen insights into national and world affairs. In 1942 Davies wrote: "Not by design, but by necessity, the American people are moving towards world ascendancy." The prediction was no boast, but rather one of many calls to the conscience of the nation never to compromise its support of freedom. To Davies, a commitment to freedom was both a political and a religious principle.
In fact, they were one and the same. "We believe that freedom grows from free religion," he said, and "that only a free religion can be universal." This conviction led him to preach passionate sermons denouncing both Communist tyranny and Congressional persecution this at the high-water period of Senator Joseph McCarthy's power. Equally, he denounced all manner of injustice and led the All Souls congregation in protesting segregation in restaurants, sponsoring the city's first integrated boys club, and collecting school supplies for the children of Hiroshima. He was also active in or head of manifold liberal causes such as the Emergency Conference for Civil Control of Atomic Energy, Food for Freedom, Planned Parenthood, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Davies devoted equal energy to the denomination. He was the moving spirit behind Unitarian Advance, an unapologetic attempt to expand Unitarianism in both size and influence, with his own ministry serving as the model. Attendance at All Souls services overflowed the sanctuary, first into an adjoining hall and then to seven new congregations spawned by him in surrounding communities several of which are now among the largest in the UUA. His sermons were reprinted in magazines and newspapers, and his books like The Faith of an Unrepentant Liberal were widely influential. As noted in one of the many awards he received, his influence "extended far beyond the District of Columbia. . . . He was, indeed, a universal citizen."
Through the publishing efforts of the A. Powell Davies Memorial Committee of All Souls Church, his voice continues to be heard. He speaks to us as citizens when he says: "The American commitment is to universal justice, the rights of all people, not the special interests of some. It is a commitment . . . to the common good." And his message resonates equally with today's Unitarian Universalists: "We are the consummation of thousands of years of religious history. We are thousands of years that have stripped off superstition and have battled tyranny . . . that have marched, sometimes joyfully, sometimes in agony, toward spiritual emancipation. . . . Yet in this world of blood and sorrow it is hardly worth mentioning unless in addition we are the beginning of something, unless our religion is new."
Warren R. Ross is a UU World contributing editor. Without Apology: Collected Meditations on Liberal Religion by A. Powell Davies (Skinner House, 1998; $12) is available from the UUA Bookstore (800-215-9076). Other titles by Davies are available from All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. See Language of the Heart, page 17.