The Philadelphia Ethical Society
On Wednesday night I attended a rally to kick off the political campaign of my brother-in law Chris McCabe, who is running for judge in Philadelphia and who has now collected the 1000 names necessary to put his name on the ballot. The campaigning officially began this week.
The rally was held at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, an inconspicuous building on Philadelphia’s ritzy Rittenhouse Square. I had been there before.
Several years ago, I had been awarded a fellowship by The National Endowment for the Humanities to read “Texts of Toleration”–those works that promoted liberty, free will, and understanding. The opening reception was held at the Ethical Society. That both events were held here made sense: the pieces we were to read dealt primarily with the ethics of society and my brother-in-law is one of the most socially conscious people I know.
Deed before Creed
And now, I was here again. I don’t know if I remember seeing the plaque at the front steps the first, but I liked what it said: “DEED BEFORE CREED.” In our modern world, we are too often reminded that belonging to a particular “creed” is no assurance that “goodly deeds” are to follow. Certainly, we can point to most of the major world religions to find evidence of this.
And so, I decided to look into this place that calls itself “The Ethical Society.”
The American Ethical Society was officially started in 1877 in New York (as the New York Society for Ethical Culture) when Felix Adler gave a sermon that focused on the immorality of exploiting the underclasses–which at the time included women and labor. Adler’s European education informed his Kantian belief that morality could exist separate from organized religion.
Within ten years of the founding of New York Society, three other societies were established in the U.S., in Philadelphia, in St. Louis, and in Chicago.
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In 1867, Matthew Arnold wrote:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
The retreating “sea of Faith,” the general Victorian uncertainties of the day, was the impetus for the foundation of the societies in Britain. One can trace the American ethical cultural movement to various ethical movements in early Britain. There was a South Place Ethical Society in London as early as 1793. It became a Unitarian chapel a few years later and is most noted for its strong support of women rights. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Unitarians moved out and the place became the South Place Ethical Society.
A few years after Adler had established the Ethical Culture Movement in the U.S., the Fellowship of New Life was established in Britain, bringing together some of the more innovative and brilliant intellectuals of its time. The fellowship did not last long, but was instrumental in finding the Fabian Society which had a large impact on British intellectual and social thought of the time. Within years, however, there were four Ethical Societies in London and over fifty societies in Great Britain by 1910.
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So what’s it all about?
As far as I can tell, the Ethical Society basically acknowledges and celebrates the inherent worth of all people. It emphasizes that moral action is not dependent on religious creed and that the betterment of self implies a betterment of society.
That all seems pretty good to me.
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And then one of those weird coincidences. Four days after beginning–though not finishing–this blog post, I read a review of two volumes of work by Bernard Malamud. In the work they mention, that Malamud, the son of Jewish immigrants, wanted to marry the daughter of Italian Catholic immigrants. Malamud’s father was highly against the marriage. (He did not speak to his son for years afterward.) But they married anyway–at the New York Ethical Society. It is a small bit of information, but it highlights the society’s pushing aside of parochial prejudices and celebrating a basic goodness.