Felix Adler

On this date in 1851, Felix Adler, founder of the Society for Ethical Culture, was born in Germany, the son of a Reform rabbi. At six, he immigrated with his family to New York City. Adler graduated from Columbia College, and returned to Germany for advanced study, earning a Ph.D at the University of Heidelberg. Freethinker Andrew D. White, president of Cornell University, in cooperation with banker Joseph Seligman, endowed a chair of Hebrew and Oriental literature for Adler for three years. In 1876, Adler was invited to give a lecture to a group interested in Adler's ideas of a creedless ethical movement, a moral "universal religion" without a deity at its base. He told them: "We propose entirely to exclude prayer and every form of ritual . . . . to occupy that common ground where we may all meet, believers and unbelievers . . . be one with us where there is nothing to divide, in action. Diversity in creed, unanimity in the deed. . ." By 1877, the New York Society for Ethical Culture had been incorporated, and went on to initiate social reforms, such as "model tenements," the founding of a free kindergarten in 1878, free legal aid to the poor, and child labor laws. Adler chaired the National Child Labor Committee from 1904-1921. His published lectures included: Creed and Deed (1880), The Moral Instruction of Children (1892), Life and Destiny (1903), The Essentials of Spirituality, Marriage and Divorce, (1905), The Religion of Duty (1905), The World Crisis and Its Meaning (1915), and An Ethical Philosophy of Life (1918). The International Journal of Ethics, founded by Adler in 1890, is published today by the University of Chicago Press as Ethics. Adler became professor of social and political ethics at Columbia, teaching from 1902 until his death. He also founded Ethical Culture schools, including the Fieldston High School in Riverdale, New York, endowed by John D. Rockefeller. D. 1933.

“For more than three thousand years men have quarreled concerning the formulas of their faith. The earth has been drenched with blood shed in this cause, the face of day darkened with the blackness of the crimes perpetrated in its name. There have been no dirtier wars than religious wars, no bitterer hates than religious hates, no fiendish cruelty like religious cruelty; no baser baseness than religious baseness. It has destroyed the peace of families, turned the father against the son, the brother against the brother. And for what? Are we any nearer to unanimity? On the contrary, diversity within the churches and without has never been so widespread as at present. Sects and factions are multiplying on every hand, and every new schism is but the parent of a dozen others.”

—Felix Adler, founding address of New York Society for Ethical Culture, May 15, 1876

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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