John Herman Randall sr

John Herman Randall Sr.

Pioneer liberal, philosopher, pacifist

John Herman Randall Sr.'s New York Times obituary stated that, “Dr. John Herman Randall, retired clergyman and leader of the World Unity movement, died on Wednesday in his home at 527 Riverside Drive. His age was 75.

Dr. Randall, who sometimes referred to himself simply as John Herman Randall, attained prominence in his youth as an orator, and later as an author of philosophical works. His ardent championship of the fellowship of all mankind had led him, like John Haynes Holmes, with whom he was associated from 1919 to 1927, to frequently discard the “Dr.” before his name.

Born in St. Paul, Minn., he was graduated from Colgate University in 1892, and was licensed a preacher in 1888. Ordained to the Baptist ministry in 1895, he started as a pastor in Chenoa, Ill. For several years he was pastor of the Chicago Avenue Church in Minneapolis, and later of the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In 1906 he came to the Mount Morris Baptist Church of New York. In 1919, Dr. Randall joined Mr. Holmes, who had been pastor of the Church of the Messiah, Park Avenue and Thirty-fifth Street, since 1907, in reorganizing it as the Community Church, which Mr. Holmes still heads, and of which Dr. Randall became associate minister. “In accepting this call I free myself of those limitations that are inevitable in the denominational church,” he said. “I shall henceforth stand frankly for the universal religion of human brotherhood.”

He retired in 1927 to become director of the World Unity Foundation, and editor of its magazine …. Dr. Randall had once said that he believed the religions of Christianity and Buddhism should be united.” Francis Ballard Randall’s longer and more personal account of John Herman Randall, Sr. and Minerva Inez Ballard Randall states that, “John Herman Randall, later Sr., my grandfather, was born in St. Paul on April 27th, 1871. Since his own father was named John, he was addressed as “Herman” by his family, all his life. As the eldest son, he was encouraged from the start by his formidable mother to do well in school, to go to college (the first Randall to do so) and to divinity school, and to become a clergyman. This, he told me much later, coincided with his own hopes. The arguments came later. I don’t know why he (and she) chose Colgate College in the East, but they did, and he was graduated in 1892 with a Phi Beta Kappa key, the first of four successive generations to win it. Then came the problem. When Sarah Arvila Oakes was born, virtually all Northern Baptists as well as Southern, and all other mainline Protestant churches and sects in Europe and America, were traditional believers (but not all of America’s unchurched majority, such as Abraham Lincoln). But during her lifetime, and increasingly during her son’s lifetime, a great many thoughtful and often agonized Protestants came to doubt, modify and often drop a number of hitherto unquestioned theological tenets and moral judgments – as harsh, unmodern, unscientific and repellent. Very few thoughtful Christians suddenly turned atheist. But an increasing minority (by World War II a majority) slowly, step by step, individually rather than in groups or congregations, became looser and milder and quite diverse in their beliefs, constituting a long sliding scale of sentiments and positions. These were called “liberal” theological positions. Those who evolved toward them often adopted what in the 20th Century came to be called “progressive” and later “liberal” political positions – in the North, usually within the Republican Party, until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. (My grandfather, like his father and grandfather, remained a Republican all his life.) The traditional majorities of Protestants, increasingly worried and presently outraged by the increasing numbers of liberals, rallied under the then newly invented term, “fundamentalism.”

Sarah Randall remained a firm traditionalist. John Herman Randall, during his Colgate years, evolved into a moderately liberal religious position. I’ve never heard which teachers, fellow-students and books at Colgate most influenced him in this direction. He determined to go, for his training in divinity, to the newly refounded Baptist Theological Seminary of the newly opened (1891) University of Chicago. Both had just been endowed generously by the firm traditional Baptist, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. But under the strong, founding presidency of the distinctly liberal Baptist Hebrew scholar, William Rainey Harper, both were launched with the best founding faculties that money could buy, deliberately set up to be fora for all current investigations and debates, where the whole sliding scale of students from fundamentalists to radicals could learn from diversity, and speak freely. Sarah Randall was not amused. She sincerely believed that such a course would lead to her son’s falling away from the Christian faith and to the damnation of his soul. She strongly urged him to go to a traditional Baptist seminary, and to depart forthwith for a lifetime as a missionary in China, where in isolation from the modern, liberal currents, the dangerous temptations that seemed to her to be sweeping true Christianity away in America, his faith might be preserved uncorrupted. (She was dead right about the futures of ministers in America and American missionaries in China.) My grandmother (not yet on the scene) said the battle between them was titanic, which she must have gotten from her husband. But she didn’t say that Sarah Randall was nasty, bitter, improperly threatening, personally cruel, or unforgiving when she lost. For she did lose. John Herman Randall did go to the University of Chicago’s seminary. In this he must have had the consent, at least, of his father, who after all paid the bills, though he had always left religious matters to his wife. He was a prize student at the seminary, where he was broadened and confirmed in his liberal religious position, as he would broaden and liberalize in further stages for the rest of his professional life. This more than forty-year-long evolution from a traditional Baptist to a non-sectarian, very liberal Christian was the core of his personal and spiritual life, the message of his successive ministries, and the function of his not uninfluential career in America. But he first had to be ordained by the Baptist board in Minnesota, which was mostly traditional, but open to considering candidates with the new convictions. That must have been a very anxious hurdle for him at the time.

Decades later, when I asked him about it, he said, “No, they didn’t ask me if I was willing to be damned for the glory of the Lord. Quite early, they asked me if I believed in a personal Devil. I had to say, No, and that led to an animated and heated discussion that lasted so long that they didn’t have time to ask me if I believed in a personal God – which would have sunk me!” By whatever confidential vote, my grandfather was passed for ordination, but told that he would only be recommended to already liberal Baptist congregations. Fair enough? I wonder with what combination of pride and inner anxiety Sarah Randall attended her son’s ordination, not a sacrament among the Baptists, but a formal occasion.

His first regular post was the Baptist pastorate of Chenoa, Ill., the small town capital of a farm county in downstate Illinois. There he was regularly invited to dinner by Henry Francis Ballard, of Scotch-Irish descent, the town physician and a chicken farmer, who had written a book on a deadly illness of chickens, the pip. The doctor invited the minister “because he had five marriageable daughters,” my grandmother said. She was the middle one, Minerva Ballard, between the older Myrtle and Edith, and the younger Lille and Aldean. (My father’s future aunts, who came East from time to time to visit their sister and her family. Just once, in 1941, my father drove us through Chenoa and other towns in Illinois and Ohio to visit every hospitable one of them.)

John Herman Randall and Minerva Ballard were married in Chenoa in 1896. I never knew her when she was young, but she was said to have been pretty, sprightly and frank. She remained a Baptist, but didn’t discuss how much her religious views had evolved with her husband’s. Her attitude was “irreverent,” not toward religion but toward pompous people and sentiments. She thought Minerva a bit much of a name, and preferred “Minnie.” When her first baby (my father) was learning to talk, he apparently combined Minnie with Mummy, and it came out “Money,” which tickled her, so she adopted it as the family mode of address for the rest of her life.

She had a dry and sometimes peppery wit. She seems to have grown easily into her role as metropolitan hostess of the frequent occasions of a distinguished and very social minister. Soon after she came to New York, some nut in the street exposed himself to her. She yelled at him (one version) or to the family (another version), “I’m a wife and a mother of two boys. Do you think I don’t know how a man is made?”

She got along well with her two very different daughters-in-law. She was a kind and indulgent (but not “permissive”) grandmother. I suspect that she was a less indulgent but no less kind – and effective – mother, but her two sons never discussed that with me. My grandfather, still in his twenties, secured an excellent post as the minister of the Fountain Street Baptist Church, in Grand Rapids, Mich. It was a prominent church and a prominently liberal one. Baptists in the northern tier of states were more liberal than in the central belt of Northern Baptist states. There my grandfather became known for his thoughtful but often lively and sometimes humorous sermons (not so common then), on traditional and modern religious and moral themes, on political themes (moderately; he was never a prominent political minister, as Reinhold Niebuhr was) and on literary subjects. He, like a number of ministers since the railroad age began, received free passes from many railroads, and could go all over the country (though chiefly to the Middle West and Northeast) to give sermons in other churches and lectures from public platforms, notably at the Chautauqua Institute in westernmost New York state, where tens of thousands gathered in the summers to be informed and uplifted. Sermons and other writings of his were published. He became one of the few dozen American ministers who were nationally known voices and, they hoped (although they were not always in agreement), moral forces. No American ministers have won this place after World War II, save some black ministers in politics, as varied as King, Jackson and Sharpton. Some widely read professors, or some widely seen on television, approach this status today, but on the whole it is a social phenomenon that has vanished.

John Herman and Minerva Randall’s sons were born in Grand Rapids: John Herman Randall, Jr., my father, in 1899 and Robert Hulbert Randall in 1902. In 1906, my grandfather received a call to a prominent and even more liberal church in unshakeably liberal New York, the Mount Morris Baptist Church, near Mount Morris Park, in what was then a white middle class and upper middle class district, which decades later evolved into part of black Harlem. He had definitely arrived. They lived in a solid, handsome, four storey brownstone house at 28 West 127th St., with living room and dining room furnished in suites of black Circassian walnut furniture, where they entertained widely. His sermons and writings on his great theme of how religion must evolve to be a continuing beneficent moral force in the changing modern world – and many other subjects, multiplied. He published books derived from these subjects, “A New Philosophy of Life,” “The Culture of Personality,” and others. During his minister’s six week summer vacations he took his family to Eastern equivalents of the lakes and forests he had so loved in his youth in Minnesota: first to the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence, and then, from the First World War, to Belgrade Lakes, Maine. When his children were sufficiently grown, he took the family on trips to Europe, in 1910, 1912 and 1914, from England to the Hapsburg Monarchy. (They were caught in England when the First World War broke out, and were lucky to find, at last, a ship home.)

During the War, he preached and wrote a great deal on it, as most American ministers did not. This included a book, “Humanity at the Crossroads.” He became a pacifist, and preached American mediation to end the catastrophe, which was popular in his church. But he remained an articulate pacifist after the United States entered the War in 1917, which was definitely not popular. He and his congregation mutually agreed that he ought to seek a new post. In 1919 he accepted the invitation of the Rev. John Haynes Holmes, an even more liberal, pacifist minister, to share a ministry in the Community Church of New York, which Holmes had recently founded. This was to be a non-denominational church, in effect an inter-denominational liberal Protestant church, for Catholics didn’t join and like-minded Jews were more apt to be members of the Ethical Culture Society. Holmes came to reach out to non-Christian religions, especially Hinduism, and celebrated a kind of Devali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. This made my grandfather smile. But he did not smile when a notable Hindu, Mohandas K. Gandhi, launched his Indian non-violent campaigns for freedom from Great Britain, in 1920-22. He spoke, wrote, signed petitions and raised some money on Gandhi’s behalf. Decades later I was proud to find, in a Gandhist ashram in South India, a copy of a public letter for the release of Gandhi from prison, signed by some American clergymen, Holmes and my grandfather among them.

The 1920s were palmy days for America, including its churches, including the untypical Community Church of New York. From my grandmother’s accounts and from those of my mother, who knew him in that decade, John Herman Randall, Sr. had an optimistic, expansive, energetic, ebullient, humorous personality, not unlike what was asserted of his own grandfather, William Hannaford Randall of St. Paul, whom he never knew.

He and his wife and their younger son, Robert, took two more trips to Europe, in 1924 and 1926, the latter getting tangled up in a revolution in Portugal. He became more and more devoted to summer camps in Belgrade Lakes, and at the end of the decade commissioned a beautiful, Douglas fir-lined lodge on the shore of Great Pond there. He had an Airedale dog, Rex, a gentle soul who once allowed my brother John, when very young, to fill his ears with Belgrade dirt. Although very busy, my grandfather continued to read and love literature. When Joseph Conrad died in 1924, not yet fully accepted as a classic English novelist, my grandfather, on non-successive Sundays, preached twelve sermons on Conrad’s novels and their ethical seriousness.

He had not forgotten the horrors of World War I, and spent the decade trying, as a number of statesmen and public intellectuals did then, trying to educate the public and set up institutions that would make another world war impossible – a dream that seems so silly now, but which my grandfather and others then thought it ethically obligatory to pursue. In 1919 he published a book, “The Spirit of the New Philosophy,” preaching unity in all aspects of human life – unity within oneself, unity with nature, unity with God and “The Coming World Unity.” He also published a novel, “Soul on Fire,” whose protagonist wrestled with the problems of evolving his faith and saving humanity from future world wars He inspired a wealthy lady in his church to found and endow a World Unity Foundation, of which he became the head, and its journal, the “World Unity Magazine,” of which he became editor – in 1929. He had been at increasing odds with John Haynes Holmes, and was glad to leave the Community Church for an organization he could wholly control and direct. That year he also published a book he was very happy to write with his philosopher-son, my father, “Religion in the Modern World.” Perhaps he should have died that year. For then the Great Depression struck, building up slowly for over three years. The benefactor of World Unity lost so much of her money that she had to withdraw all the pledged funds, and the foundation and magazine collapsed in 1931.

My grandfather had optimistically and unwisely invested heavily in Latin American bonds, especially Brazilian, which also collapsed in 1931, leaving him far from poor, but no longer rich. He was now sixty years old, and he plunged into what not so many of his family and friends recognized then as a depression, which lasted the rest of his life. My cousin Anne believes he was subject to manic-depressive alternations all his life. My mother thought he was uninterruptedly expansive (manic?) until his misfortunes in 1931, and then permanently depressed

Whichever, he never sought another ministry or organizational post, and ceased to speak publicly or write. His lively social life was reduced to the family and a few old and presently dying friends. He continued to be actively devoted to his two sons and to his grandson, my older brother John. He became increasingly devoted to his splendid lodge among the great pine trees by Great Pond in the Belgrade Lakes, which he was able to have completed in 1932. He became a gardener of a limited garden between the pines. He was frustrated by a row of nasturtiums that didn’t bloom, so my grandmother, mother and Aunt Mildred bought a bunch of nasturtiums in the village, and while he was out motorboating, paper-clipped them to the plants. He returned and was elated to see the blooms, and then completely crest-fallen when he discovered the trick, but he was “very nice about it.” (My grandmother, mother and aunt were heartstruck.)

My grandfather was not completely inert. He was certainly nice to his grandchildren including me. He helped organize auto trips, motorboat excursions, sessions of toasting marshmallows, etc. He loved to listen to the Edgar Bergen–Charlie McCarthy show. He spoke at meals, but was relatively quiet and humorless, as he certainly had not been before 1931. He spend hours each day lying on a New England chair for three, reading pulp magazines. He was glad to read stories to me. This was the grandfather I knew. He seemed normal and pleasant to me; I was always glad to visit him. But it was heartbreaking to those who had known him in his great decades. My grandfather’s former Mount Morris Baptist Church collapsed as a white church as its neighborhood became part of the expanding black Harlem. In 1939, I think, he and his wife moved out of their brownstone on 127th St. for the same reason, though it was not polite to mention it even then. They moved to 527 Riverside Dr., to be near my father, in a splendid apartment with a Hudson River view – and the black Circassian walnut furniture. The coming of World War II certainly didn’t encourage him, but I don’t think it changed his condition much. He died of a heart attack on May 15th, 1946. Minerva Randall, never depressed that I know of, always active, always practical, always cheerful or at least equable, always with a pointed remark, survived her husband for two years, and died of cancer on June 13th, 1948.” In the academic year 1889-90, John was a member of the Colgate University YMCA Committee on Bible Study; in the academic year 1890-91, he was the Colgate University YMCA Recording Secretary. Anne Ballard Randall Myers recollected that Minerva Ballard Randall had only had about a high school education, but was determinedly self-educated, and very cultured by the time Anne knew her. Myrtle Ballard Ketcham wrote that: “I was amused when I found in the Who’s Who in America passages they (or you) had ascribed John Herman Randall’s books in part to his, J. Herman Randall, Jr., the philosopher at Columbia University. I was amused because I remembered my sister’s story about Herman’s discomfiture once on shipboard bound for one of their trips abroad. Herman was well-known on the Easts Coast as a brilliant and charming lecturer. His style was unusual. He loved good style and some of Jack’s books show the same trait. Well, on this ship Herman found that he was being known as the father of John Randall, Jr. Quite a blow, even though he was inordinately proud of his son.”

Education: Colgate University, BA, 1892; University of Chicago Divinity School, 1893-1896. Publications: The New Thought movement: first in a series of sermons (1908 or 1909); A New Philosophy of Life (1911); The Culture of Personality (1912); Humanity at the Cross-roads (1915); The Life of Reality (1916); The Essence of Democracy (1919); The Spirit of the New Philosophy (1919); With Soul on Fire; a novel (1919); The New Light on Immortality; or, The Significance of Psychic Research (1921); The Irrepressible Conflict in Religion (1925); (with John Herman Randall, Jr.) Religion and the Modern World (1929); A World Community: the Supreme Task of the Twentieth Century (1930); The Mastery of Life (1931).



This lovely window at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., commemorates John Herman Randall Sr.'s tenure there at the turn of the 20th century. Our thanks to the church's current minister, Fred Wooden, for the photograph, and a significant clarification to this essay.