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Growing with Davies

Fifty years ago, the Rev. A. Powell Davies led a bold initiative to start new congregations in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
By Warren R. Ross
Winter 2006 11.1.06

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A. Powell Davies

As the outspoken minister of All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., the Rev. A. Powell Davies drew many new Unitarian churches—and helped them start eight new churches in just over a decade. (©Bettmann/Corbis)

Half a century ago, two phenomena put an indelible stamp on American Unitarianism. One was the Rev. A. Powell Davies, a liberal preacher and writer of almost unsurpassed influence. The other was the burst of Unitarian church-planting he inspired in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. In little more than ten years, Washington-area Unitarians started eight new churches—several of which are among the largest congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association today.

Davies was a preacher of power and eloquence. A Methodist minister who emigrated to the United States from Great Britain in 1928 seeking greater theological freedom, Davies became a Unitarian minister in 1933 and served in Summit, New Jersey, before being called to the venerable All Souls Unitarian Church in the nation’s capital in 1944. He quickly made a name for himself. Though most of his sermons were pastoral, his preaching often stirred up considerable controversy. He supported family planning, lobbied for civilian control of America’s nuclear technology, opposed racial segregation, and condemned both Communism and Senator Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting. “I am what is called a controversial person,” he told the annual meeting of Unitarians in Boston in 1953: “that is . . . one who does not keep quiet in the presence of evil.”

A fierce critic of McCarthy’s anti-Communist investigations, Davies traveled some 30,000 miles across the country on a speaking tour denouncing the senator’s tactics in 1952–53. Davies influenced public opinion through his sermons, lectures, and books like American Destiny, America’s Real Religion, and The Urge to Persecute. More important, since there were often senators in his congregation, he may have directly influenced the vote of censure that finally clipped McCarthy’s wings in 1954.

As strongly as Davies criticized McCarthyism, he saw Communism as a profound threat to America and to liberal religion. Many Unitarians never forgave him for calling for the dismissal of the editor of the American Unitarian Association’s magazine, the Rev. Stephen Fritchman, whom Davies saw as pro-Communist or worse. Fritchman was fired in 1947.

Davies’s ambitions for Unitarianism were not modest. In the early 1940s, when he was minister in Summit, he helped form Unitarian Advance, an initiative to mobilize and rejuvenate what he and some of his colleagues considered a moribund denomination. Through their writings, committee work, and advocacy at denominational meetings, they infused Unitarianism with a new sense of purpose. “The Faith Behind Freedom” —a wartime statement Davies helped draft and which the AUA adopted in 1943—proclaimed: “Our [Unitarian] purpose is to build a World Community of free and equal men, dedicated to equality of human rights and obligations, and governed by the laws that free men make. . . . We seek complete and universal freedom.”

“We could be forerunners of a church,” he said, “which includes the whole human community . . . on the basis of universal fellowship and universal freedom.”

In 1944 the AUA Board adopted the “working principles” his committee outlined as the foundations of the Unitarian faith: “individual freedom of belief, discipleship to advancing truth, the democratic process in human relations, universal brotherhood undivided by nation, race or creed, and allegiance to a united world community.”

Davies’s vision found a receptive audience in Washington. Soon after his arrival at All Souls in 1944, the congregation began to overflow not just the church auditorium but its meeting hall, its parish house, and every other venue where his sermons could be piped in over loudspeakers.

He didn’t want a large church, however. Davies decided that a membership of 500 was the ideal limit; more than that would impair the pastoral relationship. Also, as Jane Pfeiffer, his long-time assistant, recalled in a recent interview, he objected to going on a double session or hiring an associate minister. His approach—his strategy—was to make Unitarianism grow by founding new congregations, not by enlarging his own.

The Universalists’ National Memorial Church stood a few blocks south of All Souls, but there were no other Unitarian congregations in the area. Members of All Souls had started plans for a new congregation in the southern suburbs before Davies arrived. He encouraged these plans, and in 1948 a new Unitarian church was formally organized across the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia.

These were the years of the baby boom, and the Arlington church quickly began to grow, attracting mostly young families who were searching for liberal religious education for their children. In 1950, the church called to its pulpit the Rev. Ross Weston, who joined Davies in the formation of a Greater Washington Committee for Unitarian Advance. The committee helped new congregations get started with funds for advertising in local newspapers, with administrative support, later with building loans, and still later with grants matched by the American Unitarian Association to recruit their own ministers.

Davies’s ambitious plan was to start what he called a Unitarian Center at every major highway entering the capital at the rate of one per year. Although nothing ever goes exactly according to plan, consider his success: The Cedar Lane Unitarian Church was formally organized in Bethesda, Maryland, on the northwest side of the Beltway in 1953. The next year, the Washington Unitarians planted a church on the southeast side in Camp Springs, Maryland. (After Davies’s death, it was renamed the Davies Memorial Church.) In 1955, the Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church was established just south of the city in Alexandria, Virginia. Moving north again, the Paint Branch Unitarian Church was founded in Adelphi, Maryland, in 1956.

The growth plan was infectious. The Cedar Lane Unitarians grew quickly and fostered the establishment of a church farther northwest in Rockville, Maryland, in 1956—and then helped start the River Road congregation on the other side of Bethesda in 1959. Meanwhile, the church in Arlington took the lead in starting another congregation in the western suburbs, spawning the UU Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, Virginia, in 1955.

Davies was directly involved in five of these efforts, and the churches he helped launch quickly started three more. In just over a dozen years in Washington, Davies and the members of All Souls planted eight new churches.

As the Unitarians were reaching out into the suburbs in the post-war years, the Washington Universalists also spun off a suburban church in Silver Springs, Maryland, in 1952—the last specifically Universalist extension effort before the Unitarian and Universalist denominations merged in 1961.

Not everyone shared Davies’s enthusiasm for launching new congregations. Leaders at All Souls were concerned in 1950 when Davies and some of his parishioners, inspired by the success of the new church in Arlington, started looking north to the suburbs around Chevy Chase. A substantial percentage of the All Souls membership (and money) came from those communities. Nonetheless, the church board voted in 1951 to advance $1,500 to support the formation of a Montgomery County Unitarian Center (which later became the Cedar Lane church), and a committee was formed to find rental space. What’s more, All Souls agreed to provide ministerial and office services—and to share its mailing list. Davies asked Mildred Lester to serve as organizing secretary, under his direction. She provided not only administrative support but recruited and trained teachers for the pivotal religious education program.

Nor were all the members who were asked to attend the new churches happy about leaving. They could still listen to Davies’s sermons in their new locations, however, which eased the pangs of separation: Laurence Staples, All Souls’s longtime executive director, devised a system to transmit the sermons by telephone to loudspeakers in the suburban centers.

Even in the fifties, traffic and parking were problems for suburban members trying to attend All Souls services. You had to get up with the paper boy to be able to park on any nearby street, says one pioneer of the growth plan in a film made in 1957 by members of the Cedar Lane and Arlington congregations—and even then you often couldn’t get in to the church itself and had to be content to join the hundreds listening to Davies in Pierce Hall.

That made parting easier. After all, it was no more of a hardship to listen to sermons over a loudspeaker in the suburbs than in the city, and it saved the time and hassle of driving into Washington.

“I was enchanted with [Davies],” Mary Taylor recalls in a history of the Cedar Lane church, “and couldn’t bear to think of a church without his wisdom and beautiful sermons. But when it became clear that we would have him on a telephone wire . . . I was relieved and happy to go along.”

The biggest problem in Montgomery County turned out to be that their planning anticipated a Sunday school enrollment of 58, but 170 kids showed up on opening day, with another 20 on the waiting list. In 1952, as the congregation was forming, a questionnaire found that 46 members preferred becoming an independent church, but almost as many (42) wanted to maintain their association with All Souls. Even so, it took only one more year for the center to become a church and call its first minister. By 1957, with Davies and denominational leaders in attendance, they broke ground for their own building. By 1962, the Cedar Lane church was the fourth largest UU congregation in the nation, attracting an astonishing 1,765 adults and children.

With the benefit of hindsight, of course, it’s possible to see the negative aspect of this movement out of Washington. Two words sum it up: white flight, the term sociologists have given to the nationwide exodus of young, white, middle-class families to the rapidly sprouting suburbs in the post-war period. The conscious motive may have been to find green lawns for children to play on and good schools for them to go to. Yet the result and perhaps the not entirely unintended consequence was to leave less affluent and less mobile African Americans behind in rapidly deteriorating inner cities.

In the 1950s and ’60s, a number of inner-city Unitarian and Universalist churches either died or packed up and followed their members to the suburbs. All Souls stayed put, and Davies led the fight against the injustices of what was still a segregated city. The Washington Post said Davies was “militantly in the forefront of every assault upon intolerance and racial discrimination and injustice.” He published lists of restaurants where black and white customers could eat together and called on his members to pledge not to patronize those that discriminated. When a police-sponsored boys club that met at the church refused to admit African American boys, the church ended its support and sponsored its own Columbia Heights Boys Club, the first such integrated facility in the city.

But the move to the suburbs hasn’t turned out to serve white communities only. One of the suburban churches Davies helped found—what is now the Davies Memorial Church in Camp Springs—is in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where some 62 percent of the residents are black. Its current minister, the Rev. John Crestwell, says 30 percent of the church’s members are African Americans.

In planting new congregations, All Souls did give away many of the leaders who had given much of their time, energy, and financial support to the church. Then, in 1957, All Souls lost its beloved minister. Davies died when a blood clot moved into his lungs and caused a hemorrhage. Three Supreme Court justices joined the mourners at his memorial service. But the church has remained a liberal beacon in Washington to this day.

Even before breaking ground for their first building in the mid-fifties, the members of the Cedar Lane church found that their membership and religious education enrollment would exceed the building’s capacity. With the help of the Greater Washington Committee, they helped to form a new church in Rockville, northwest of Bethesda, in 1956. But Bethesda is a big community and one spin-off wasn’t enough: In 1959, Cedar Lane seeded another church on the other side of Bethesda. Like Cedar Lane, the new church opted for a geographic designation and became the River Road Unitarian Church. Davies’s widow, Muriel, was hired as the new group’s organizing secretary and later became the director of religious education at River Road. Curt Adams, a Cedar Lane board member who went on to help found River Road, says she was the “spark plug” of the new church. She is still a member and will turn 100 in November.

There was talk at Cedar Lane of starting yet another church, but by 1971, the growth was over. The baby boom had run its course, but other trends played a part, too. What squelched further growth at Cedar Lane were tensions that roiled the entire Unitarian Universalist Association: the conflicting responses to the Vietnam War and the Black Power movement, compounded by what Adams refers to as the “hippie period,” which triggered adult concerns about youth groups’ (and some adults’) experimentation with drugs and sex. A number of older members resigned; religious education registration plummeted. On and on it went, Adams says in his 1989 history of River Road, gamely calling it “a difficult period in American life.” Whatever you call it, it abruptly put a stop to a period of hopeful growth.

While it lasted, however, the Washington growth initiative was an exciting chapter in our denominational life. It inspired similar regional attempts to stimulate growth in Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto, although none of them quite equaled the success in the Washington area. The missing element may well have been that dynamic leaders with the vision and eloquence of A. Powell Davies don’t come along every day—or even every decade.

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