Unitarian minister fired for promoting basketball (1922)

When you do research in local history, sometimes you turn up fascinating little local dramas. Like the newspaper story I found today about Unitarian minister Samuel L. Elberfeld, who lost his job in part because he coached a church basketball team for teenagers. This is a story that appeared on the front page of the New Bedford Standard for 18 November 1922, above the fold.

Sports fans will have fun reading how Elberfeld believed sports and religion could not be separated — and they will have less fun reading how he got fired for so believing. Aficionados of dirty church politics will revel in the stratagems used by church members to promote minority rule. Church polity geeks will want to puzzle out the complicated matter of why a church rooted in congregational polity would ever delegate responsibility of firing their minister to another church (quick answer — that other church provided the money to pay the minister’s salary).

Journalism fans will notice how the reporter uses “it is said” instead of directly quoting someone, or attributing facts or opinions to an actual person — a delightful use of the passive voice to promote innuendo — but this was a different era of journalism, with different standards. Note too how a daily city newspaper chose to report such a story on the front page — for it is exactly the kind of juicy rumor-laden story that we all love to read in local newspapers, notwithstanding the obvious pain this particular story caused to Samuel Elberfedl, as revealed in his quoted remarks in the story; and no doubt the article was also very painful to members of the congregation. Which is why newspapers stopped carrying stories like this one, and which why we now read blogs, because the newspapers have gotten so boring.

So here is the story, blazing headlines and all (with an epilogue at the end telling what happened afterwards):


Meeting Held in Unity Home
   Last Evening Acts
      Against Pastor

      OF 135 MEMBERS

Final Action in North Unita-
   rian Church Up to
      Center Committee

At a meeting of members of the North Unitarian Church held in Unity Home, Tallman street, last night, a vote was taken on the dismissal of the Rev. Samuel L. Elberfeld, pastor of the church. There were 36 members present, and the voted was 26 for dismissal, and three for his retention. There were seven blanks cast.

According to previous announcements, the meeting was called for the purpose of discussing the future policy of the church, bearing on the question of whether the social and athletic activities are to be carried on as extensively as they are at present, or whether they are to be made subservient to the work of the church proper.

The meeting resolved itself into a discussion of the dismissal of the pastor. The vote it is said did not represent the sentiment of the full church body for the reason that there are at least 125 accredited members of the parish, and that our of this number only 36 were present. Of the 36 who attended, it was pointed out that the majority was entirely out of sympathy with the pastor. Members of this majority, it is said, were the instigators in the removal proceedings that were first brought to light as a result of a meeting a week ago. It

(Continued on Page 2.)

Otherwise It Will Be Met Outside Says Rev.
   Samuel L. Elberfeld — Has Interested Him-
   self Largely in Social and Athletic Activities
   — Sunday School Shows Steady Increase

Continued from Page One.

was said that those who are favorable toward the pastor failed to attend the meeting.

Not Informed.

After the vote was taken, is was agreed by the members of the parish not to give the results to the newspapers until Mr. Elberfeld had been informed of the action taken at the meeting.

When seen by a Standard reporter this morning, Mr. Elberfeld said that he had not received notice of the results of last night’s meeting. He was then told what had been done.

Mr. Elberfeld said, “All I can say is that my work has been successful. I have not been a failure.” He then said that he wanted to remain noncommittal. “I think you had better not ask me questions,” he suggested, adding, “It is bothering me too much.”

A committee was appointed last night to confer with the committee of the First Congregational Society (Unitarian) to learn the attitude of this committee regarding the vote on the dismissal of Mr. Elberfeld, and to ascertain what future steps should be taken.

The power of removing Mr. Elberfeld is vested in this committee, which is appointed to have supervision of the work at North Unitarian Church.

Was in Boston.

The First Congregational Society committee consists of Thomas C. Knowles, chairman; Miss Emily Hussey, Miss Mabel hutchinson, Miss Augusta Thornton, and Miss Cecile Covell. Mr. Knowles, the chairman, was in Boston today, and his views as to what action may be taken by his committee could not be learned.

The difficulties involving the pastor, it was learned, were brought about by a certain faction who charged he was more interested in and giving more of his time to the development of the Sunday school, the Women’s club and the social and athletic activities, than to the work of the church proper.

This feeling was the occasion of a meeting of the parishioners which was held in Unity Home [the building owned by First Congregational Society (Unitarian) and built as a mission to poor immigrants, and used by North Unitarian Church] Friday night, Nov. 17, at which the future policy of the church was discussed and at which references were made about the pastor that involved his future. At the time it was said that the question of the pastor was not discussed, but it developed that the meeting was merely a preliminary to bring up the question of his dismissal.

Mr. Elberfeld has been connected with the North Unitarian church for more than three years.


“There is one thing the churches today must recognize. That is, the active side of the young people’s life must be taken care of. If the churches don’t meet it, it will be met outside.”

In these words Rev. Samuel Elberfeld, pastor of the North Unitarian Church, today struck the keynote of his work in that parish. Mr. Elberfeld had consented to explain for the Standard readers the theories in the working out of which he has made many friends in the north end [of New Bedford] — and in the light of last night’s meeting of some of his parishioners, an active group of enemies.

Not an athlete himself but nevertheless deeply interested in sport, Mr. Elberfeld has as his sole outside activity the Church Basketball and Baseball Leagues. The former he has been president of for three seasons and was one of the framers of its constitution. He was largely instrumental in having included in the league’s rules a provision that a boy must be a regular attendant of church or Sunday school in order to represent that church in the league games.

Willing and Tireless Worker.

He is also president of the baseball league and was responsible for its organization last spring. A willing and tireless worker, his associates have found him always ready to draw on his small reserves of spare time to promote and maintain athletics for the boys who are faithful attendants of church or Sunday school.

Mr. Elberfeld came to the North Unitarian Church in 1918 and the first night he attended a Boy Scout meeting at Unity Home he found six boys out on the floor.

He is Scoutmaster of Troop 7 now, an organization which has at its weekly meetings about 40 boys from all sections of the North End. “We draw our Scouts from all over the North End — Baylies Square, Belleville avenue and some from the church school. Some of the brightest and best Scouts in the troop are from Belleville avenue,” Mr. Elberfeld said.

Mr. Elberfeld is a great believer in the disciplinary possibilities of basketball. So much so that every boys’ and girls’ club at the Unity Home plays the game. [N.B.: Unity Home had a gymnasium in its building.]

Must Back Up Services.

“We’re finding out,” he said, “that we must back up the Sunday services with some other interest. I have found the discipline of the basketball floor to have worked will. You can see it in the boys. When a boy is out on the floor the referee is his critic and the crowd on the sidelines sees his every move. If he can stand up under the official’s correction, the comment of the spectators and take everything in good part he’s bound to amount to something.”

That probably explains why included in the activities of the Unity Club (the girl’s society), the Unity Home Juniors, a group of boys from 12 to 16 years old, and the Young Men’s Club, are a few minutes of basketball each meeting night.

This is not without its result either. The first season of the Church Basketball League, the Unity Home team was runner-up to the championship Trinitarian five, losing the deciding game by one point. Last year the team went through the season and again this season will be among the members of the league. Last summer the Unity Home was one of the first to enter the new Church Baseball League.

Summing up his efforts along these lines, Mr. Elberfeld said, “Without neglecting the intellectual and spiritual side of church life I have emphasized the social and athletic activities, I believe with success. A proof of this is the steady increase in the size of my Sunday School.”


So ends the newspaper article. And now for the rest of the story….

Elberfeld of course was forced to resign, and left in March, 1923. In the negotiations leading up to his resignation, Elberfeld pointed out that North Unitarian Church had gone through nine ministers in the previous twelve years — not a record the church could be proud of. Within a year of Elberfeld’s departure, the church had given up their church charter; North Unitarian Church went out of existence, and Unity Home was once more entirely controlled by First Congregational Society (Unitarian). From then until 1940, Unity Home was little more than a Sunday school and social service agency.

As for Elberfeld, he went on to become the minister of the Unitarian church in East Boston, where he enjoyed a happy and productive pastorate of many years.

Moral of the story? Maybe it’s this simple: Churches that outlaw basketball go out of business.

6 thoughts on “Unitarian minister fired for promoting basketball (1922)

  1. Ted

    Maybe we should put some hoops up in TryWorks. But I suggest we not join a church league at the moment – our probable center is less than 5 feet tall and is still in elementary school.

  2. Bill Baar

    I grew up in Congregational Churches in Oak Park and they both had Gyms with Basketball courts. Both built just before or during the 1920s. I know by the 1970s they were considered wasted space a burden to heat.

    Worth noting this was before such a thing as teenagers. That was a stage of life we didn’t recognize until after WWII.

  3. The Eclectic Cleric

    Thank you so much for finding and sharing this. Basketball, (as of course you no doubt already know), was created in 1891 by James Naismith of the Young Mens Christian Association in Springfield Massachusetts as a means of keeping Young Christian Men active (and out of trouble) in the winter months between the end of the football and the beginning of the baseball seasons. It was an expression of the so-called “muscular Christianity” movement in part developed and supported in the late 19th century by Unitarians like Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Elberfeld’s dismissal likewise is a stellar example of the capacity of church “rump groups” to impose foolish, short-sighted and self-destructive decisions on a passive majority who remain silent out of fear of creating controversy and increasing conflict. The themes never seem to change; just the times and the players. Or to quote one former UUA President “it no longer surprises me how routinely we shoot ourselves in the foot. What surprises me is how quickly we reload….”

  4. Dan

    Ted @ 1 — There is actually a plan afoot to put up a basketball hoop outside our church….

    Bill @ 2 — Very much worth noting that 1922 was before the modern idea of “teenager” had been created.

    Eclectic @ 3 — Thanks for the origins of basketball, about which I was not aware. And yes, religious organizations are routinely sidetracked by small-mindedness — although this case is a pretty spectacular example, since it quickly led to the dissolution of the church.

  5. John Elberfeld

    Thank you for posting this article about my grandfather. His son and my father, John, won letters in football, basketball, and baseball while at New Beford High. John later played varsity basketball at Harvard College. Samuel Elberfeld’s brother was “Kid” Elberfeld, a great baseball player and not so good Yankee manager at the start of the century. “Kid” Elberfeld’s five daughters formed a travelling basketball team that toured the south in the 30s. With four sons and an athletic family, Samuel knew the importance of sports and fought for what he believed in. Thank you for making this information available. John Elberfeld JElberfeld AT aol.com

  6. Dan

    John Elberfeld @ 5 — Wow, thanks for that background information! For what it’s worth, I mention Elberfeld in my book of historical essays Liberal Pilgrims: Varieties of Libeeral Religious Experience in New Bedford, Massachusetts — you can download a free PDF here (look for the download link in small type to the right).

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