Obscure Unitarians: Burt Estes Howard

[An excerpt from my forthcoming book on Unitarians in Palo Alto:]

A minister and a professor at Stanford University, Burt Estes Howard was born February 23, 1863, in Clayton, N.Y. He went to school at Shaw Academy, Cleveland. He graduated from Western Reserve University in 1883, received a masters’ degree from Lane Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1886. He served as a Presbyterian minister in Michigan and Ohio from 1887 to 1892.

He married Sarah Gates 1890, and they had three children: Grenville (b. 1891), and twins Graeme and Emily (b. 1896). Sarah was a college graduate, having received her A.B. from Vassar in 1869.

He became the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, in 1892, moving his wife and infant son to California. He only remained a pastor of that church for three years. In 1895, Burt was convicted of “insubordination” by the Los Angeles Presbytery, on what some considered to be trumped-up charges. The presbytery stripped him of his ministerial authority. Burt and his supporters appealed the conviction to the judiciary commission of the Presbyterian Synod in San Jose, which reversed the local decision. But then he was brought up on charges of heresy and insubordination again a few months later. On January 25, 1896, the Los Angeles Herald reported in a page two story:

“The Rev. Howard is to be charged with high crimes and misdemeanors innumerable. The bill of particulars, it is said, will allege that he has been guilty of denying the atonement. It will furthermore be alleged that he also questioned the integrity of the scriptures. This is not all. It will be claimed that the doughty pastor has advanced, stood by and defended the doctrine of evolution. He will also be accused, in all probability, of pantheism. This is something new, but it means that he has enunciated that all nature is good. Not content with this, an endeavor will be made to show that Mr. Howard has stood up for Unitarianism. These charges will be made, so it is claimed, by some of the members of Mr. Howard’s congregation. The congregation split, and those who withdrew formed another church.”

This second heresy trial finally drove him away from Presbyterianism. In 1897, while also serving as a lecturer in professional ethics at Los Angeles Law School, he organized the Church of the Covenant, a congregation independent of any denomination. He served as the minister of that congregation for three years.

In 1899 he went to Harvard University to study, receiving his A.M. in 1900. He taught at Stanford University from 1900 to 1902. Sarah, his wife, did graduate study at Stanford while he was teaching there, receiving received her Master’s degree from Stanford in 1902. At her graduation, the twins were six years old, and son Grenville was 11. Burt went to study at the University of Heidelberg in 1902-1903, and there received his Ph.D. He then did additional study at the University of Berlin from 1903 to 1905. Presumably, his entire family accompanied him during this three year stay in Germany.

It appears that Burt became a Unitarian minister during his year of study at Harvard, probably in 1900. He served as the minister of First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles from 1905 to 1908. After his death, the Christian Register, a Unitarian periodical, reported that he was a “ready and eloquent speaker, with a fine voice, [and] when he preached, his hearers thought he should do nothing else….” However, his interests shifted away from ministry to academic work. He left First Unitarian Church in 1908, when David Starr Jordan invited him to return to Stanford as a professor of political science.

He joined the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto on November 7, 1908, and made regular financial contributions to the church through 1910. He spoke at a 1908 dinner of the Men’s Club of the church. However, he didn’t attend worship services regularly because he preached in various Unitarian churches “as occasion offered.” For example, for several months in 1909 he preached regularly at the Unitarian church in Alameda while their minister, Clarence Reed, was on sabbatical.

Beacon Press, then the publishing arm of the American Unitarian Association, published two of his books: The Shepherd’s Question (1905) and The Test (1914). An excerpt from the latter book, completed not long before his death, gives a taste of his theology:

“A writer in a recent number of the Hibbert Journal raises the question whether it is not time to abandon Christianity, and substitute something else in its place. I do not know but that the plan is a good one. We do not need Christianity any more. It cannot meet the wants of the present day. For ages Christ has been, and Jesus has been lost sight of. For ages men have come to our theological masters and said, like the Greeks of old, ‘Sirs, we would see Jesus,’ and instead of setting forth the simple Galilean, these masters have paraded their metaphysical Christ, their dogmatic layfigure in place of the living lover of men [sic]. It is not the Christ that men[sic] want to see, nor any fictitious system builded thereon, but they would see the Man Jesus, and join the ranks of the great-hearted.”

Perhaps the Los Angeles Presbytery was correct after all when they convicted Burt Estes Howard of heresy.

In 1910, the U.S. Census recorded that he was living in Palo Alto with his wife and three children. He moved back to Los Angeles in that same year. However, he continued to teach at Stanford, and apparently was in Palo Alto regularly. He continued his connection with the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, making occasional financial contributions through at least 1912.

He died of “overwork” in 1913 at his home in Los Angeles, survived by Sarah, the seventeen year old twins, and a twenty-two year old son.

Notes: 1910 U.S. Census; Western Reserve University Bulletin, 1914, p. 184; Vassar College Bulletin, 1920; Annual Register, Stanford University, 1903, p. 222; Los Angeles Herald, Oct. 11, 1895, p. 4; San Francisco Call, Oct. 29, 1895, p. 4; Los Angeles Herald, July 12, 1897, p. 8; Christian Register, Sept. 4, 1913, p. 862; Harvard Alumni Assoc., Harvard University Directory, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1910; Annual Report of the President, Stanford University, 1913, p. 10; Charles P. Blitch, Allyn Young: The Peripatetic Economist, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995; reprinted 2016, p. 24; Stanford Daily, Sept. 3, 1913, p. 1; Christian Register, Sept. 4, 1913, p. 863; Pacific Unitarian, Nov., 1908, p. 26; Pacific Unitarian, Oct., 1909, p. 358; Christian Register, March 18, 1909, p. 302; Stanford Daily, Sept. 3, 1913, p. 1.