John Haynes Holmes

John Haynes Holmes (1879-1964), American clergyman, was one of the foremost figures of the Social Gospel movement in 20th-century American Protestantism.

John Haynes Holmes was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on Nov. 29, 1879, the son of an unsuccessful but bookish businessman. Raised in Malden, Mass., young Holmes was educated at Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, where he received his degree in 1904. That year he married Madeleine Baker. From 1904 to 1907 he served as minister to the Third Religious Society of Dorchester and then accepted the pastorate at New York's Unitarian Church of the Messiah. He served as president of the General Unitarian Conference and of the Free Religious Association in the years before World War I, but in 1919 he resigned his ministerial fellowship in the Unitarian Church. His congregation followed their independent minister, changing the name of their church to the Community Church of New York. Under Holmes's guidance the church became famous for its programs of civic education and social service.

Holmes said that his "passion" was "religion—liberal, or radical, religion," and he wrote widely on the need to transform traditional religious ideas and structures. The independent pastor was well known for his political and social activities. A pacifist, he refused to support the U.S. government in World Wars I or II. When he later discovered the work of Mahatma Gandhi, he helped make the Indian leader known in the United States.

In 1906 Holmes was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); he served as its vice president until the end of his life. He also helped establish the American Civil Liberties Union, and he actively participated in every major civil liberties controversy, notably as the leading clerical defender of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in the famous 1927 trial. In New York City he served as chairman of the City Affairs Committee, a citizens' group combating political corruption.

An advocate of socialism, Holmes defended labor unions and social legislation. He traveled widely, including a trip to Palestine on behalf of American Zionists in 1929 and another to India in 1947 as a lecturer. On all these matters of public concern he wrote and lectured across the country. His writings also included a book of short stories, a play (produced in New York during the 1935-1936 season), and several poems and hymns. In 1949 he resigned his pastorate, but he continued to write and speak publicly until his death in 1964, at the age of 85.


Further Reading on John Haynes Holmes

The best source on Holmes is his own I Speak for Myself: The Autobiography of John Haynes Holmes (1959). A biographical study is in Carl H. Voss, Rabbi and Minister: The Friendship of Stephen S. Wise and John Haynes Holmes (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Voss, Carl Hermann, Rabbi and minister: the friendship of Stephen S. Wise and John Haynes Holmes, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1980.