Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/March 1893/The Brooklyn Ethical Association

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THE philosophical evolutionist looks for the regeneration of society and the advancement of civilization by means of the voluntary action of individuals, rather than by the multiplication of state agencies. Society, to him, is not an artificial mechanism, held together by legal compulsion, but an organic growth, depending for its strength and utility upon the intelligent volition of its constituent units. To effect results, however, the units must not illustrate an individualism which is antagonistic and repellent, but an individualism inspired by the social sentiment—the desire and purpose to co-operate voluntarily in all wise efforts for the common good.

As the coercive functions of the state decline, and the divorce of church and government becomes more complete, efforts for the moral and social improvement of the people are relegated more and more to the control of voluntary organizations. This is especially true as the importance and indeed the necessity of applying the method of science to the solution of the great social and political problems of the day is recognized by the public mind. It is not surprising, therefore, in a country where the government is "of the people, by the people, and for the people," to note that the education of the people in religious matters has already passed out of the control of the state, while in social and political concerns voluntary associations are rapidly taking the place of the state in the instruction of the people, and even in the enforcement of the law and the administration of justice. The Citizens' Association, the Society for the Prevention of Crime, the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and to Animals, labor organizations and arbitration committees, the Prison Reform Association, and the Social Science Association are factors in the training of our people for good citizenship, and in the administration of affairs which are not second in importance to the authorized and legalized agencies of the state.

Among the voluntary associations which are doing effective work in the moral education of the people, and in the wise direction of public sentiment toward the practical solution of our social and political problems, the Ethical Society holds a unique and important place. For a goodly number of intelligent minds—agnostics and independents in their theological views—it has already to a large extent supplanted the Church as an agency for moral, and in a qualified and unconventional sense, of religious education. Its aim is broader than that of any of the organizations devoted to specific social or political reforms; it strives not only to afford the means for wise altruistic efforts in applying ethical data to the practical problems of social life, but also, and in a special sense, to discover the true scientific and philosophical principles which underlie applied ethics and sociology.

The work of Prof. Felix Adler and his able coadjutors, Dr. Stanton Coit, Mr. Salter, Mr. Sheldon, Mr. Weston, and Mr. Mangasarian, as teachers of a noble type of ethical theory, and earnest workers among the poor and ignorant of our great cities, is worthy of all praise, and has received the cordial recognition of many who are not in full sympathy with the philosophical foundation on which the able and scholarly teaching of Prof. Adler and his disciples appears to be based.

The Brooklyn Ethical Association, which is the subject of this sketch, has no connection, however, except through its general sympathetic attitude toward noble workers for common ends, with the societies over which Prof. Adler and his devoted associates preside. This association, which has become known to the public through its efforts to bring the problems of ethics, sociology, and religion to the test of scientific and evolutionary principles, is itself a product and illustration of natural development. It did not spring, full grown, from the brain of any individual, and its ultimate success has doubtless far exceeded the expectations of any who were promoters of the earliest stages of its growth. Its original nucleus was an adult class in ethics connected with the Sunday school of the Second Unitarian Church of Brooklyn, N. Y., of which the Rev. John W. Chadwick has been for twenty-seven years the honored minister. For several years this class had been conducted by Dr. Lewis G. Janes, using as text-books such suggestive works as Spencer's Data of Ethics, Mill on Liberty, Graham's Creed of Science, Sidgwick's History of Ethics, and others of a similar character.

In the season of 1881-'82 this class was temporarily in charge of Prof. Franklin W. Hooper, now the able manager of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, and to him more than any other individual the organization and initiatory success of the association are due. He was made its first president, and presided over its deliberations for two years, being succeeded for a like term by Mr. Z. Sidney Sampson. At the close of Mr. Sampson's second term, in the fall of 1885, Dr. Lewis G. Janes was chosen as his successor, and has been re-elected in each succeeding year.

The association, which at first assumed the rather formidable title of "The Association for the Promotion of Moral and Spiritual Education," continuing for a time its Sunday morning meetings at the Second Unitarian Church, met also in private parlors on Friday evenings, and during its first season devoted its sessions to the discussion of certain fundamental philosophical problems and to the study of Herbert Spencer's work on The Study of Sociology. The doctrine of evolution, which, indeed, had entered largely into the discussion of ethical topics in the previous studies of the Sunday-school class, thus inspired and directed the work of the association from its inception. Its members, often differing in theology, in politics, and in speculative views, were agreed in finding in the scientific method, especially as inspired and illumined by the evolution idea, a common pou sto, on which they could unite in fruitful study and discussion.

From 1883 to 1885 the association continued its meetings in private parlors, studying the natural evolution and ethical foundations of the Oriental religions, with preliminary lectures on the Origin of the Religious Idea, and Fetichism; Confucianism, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, the Religions of Ancient Egypt, and the Hebrew Religion were thus reviewed during the first season, several evenings being devoted to each topic. At one meeting Prof. Charles D. B. Mills, of Syracuse, gave an interesting lecture on Our Aryan Home, and at another Baboo Amrita Lai Roy, now the editor of the Hindoo Magazine in Calcutta, described the social and religious status of his people in India at the present day. The work of the next season involved a similar treatment of the Greek and Roman Religions, Primitive Christianity, Gnosticism, and Neo-Platonism. The lectures on Primitive Christianity, which were delivered by Dr. Janes, were subsequently compiled in book form and have had a considerable sale. Other occasional lectures of this period were printed in the Westminster Review, the Index, Boston Commonwealth, Unitarian Review, and elsewhere, thus reaching and creating a larger public interest in the association and its work. As one of the results of its Oriental studies, the association obtained honorable recognition abroad, and became the authorized recipient of the first complete English translation of that monumental work, the great epic poem of India, the Mahabharâta, published, mainly for gratuitous distribution, by the Datavya Bharâta Karyalaya, at the head of which, is its devoted translator, Baboo Pratapa Chandra Roy, of Calcutta. This work has now reached upward of four thousand pages, and is hardly more than two thirds completed.

In subsequent seasons the association studied the historical development of the Rational Movement in Religion, Social Problems, viewed in the Light of History, and the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, and "George Eliot." Its membership had expanded so far beyond the original thirty or forty who comprised the Sunday-school class that private parlors were too contracted for its meetings, and by the courtesy of the trustees of the Second Unitarian Church they were transferred, first to the vestry, and subsequently to the main auditorium of the church. Here were inaugurated, in the fall of 1888, on Sunday evenings, the noteworthy lectures and discussions on Evolution which attracted the favorable attention of many of the leading minds in Europe and America to the association and its work.

Mr. Herbert Spencer, to whom the programme of that year was submitted, gave it his cordial indorsement, saying in his very appreciative letter: "The spread of the doctrine of evolution is both surprising and encouraging. The mode of presentation seems to me admirably adapted for popularizing evolution views, and it will, I think, be a great pity if the effect of such presentation should be limited to a few listeners in Brooklyn." Acting upon this suggestion, the association, which had now formally adopted the less formidable title of "The Brooklyn Ethical Association," commenced the regular publication of its lectures, each one being first issued in cheap pamphlet form, and the lectures of each season subsequently compiled in handsome cloth bindings. Four noble volumes now constitute the lasting memorial of the work of the association for the past four years in popularizing evolution views. Under the titles, respectively, of Evolution, Sociology, Evolution in Science, Philosophy, and Art, and Man and the State, the leading problems of physics, biology, philosophy, sociology, religion, ethics, and practical politics have been ably treated from the standpoint of the philosophical evolutionist.

Much of the work, and admittedly some of the best work of the association, has been done by its active members, among whom distinctions would be invidious. This work, which has involved much time and study, has been rendered gratuitously by the lecturers. Others, not active members of the association, whose names stand in the first rank of the disciples of science and advocates of evolution, have cordially co-operated, among whom we may mention Prof. John Fiske,[1] Prof. Joseph Le Conte,[1] Prof. E. D. Cope,[1] Mr. Daniel Greenleaf Thompson, Mr. Garret P. Serviss, Dr. Rossiter W. Raymond, Mr. C. Staniland Wake,[2] Prof. George Gunton, Rev. John C. Kimball,[2] Prof. Thomas Davidson; Dr. E. Benjamin Andrews, President of Brown University; Dr. Charles De Garmo, President of Swarthmore College; Dr. L. A. W. Alleman, Dr. Francis Ellingwood Abbott, Prof. Joseph Henry Allen, Mr. Edwin D. Mead, Mr. Arthur E. Kennelly, Mr. Thaddeus B. Wakeman, Rev. Samuel J. Barrows, Mr. Daniel S. Remsen, Hon. Roswell G. Horr, Hon. Edward M. Shepard, Hon. William J. Coombs, Prof. Amos G. Warner,[2] Dr. T. D. Crothers, Rev. Nicholas P. Gilman, Rev. E. P. Powell,[2] Mr. J. W. Sullivan, Miss Eliza A. Youmans,[2] and Mrs. Mary Treat.

The association has been fortunate, not only in the character and ability of its lecturers, but also in its publishers. The two volumes on Evolution and Sociology, as well as The Evolutionist, which for the past year has constituted a modest bimonthly organ of the association, were published by James H. West, of Boston, whose single-hearted devotion to the work has not been excelled by that of the active members of the association. Since 1890 the lectures have been published by Messrs. D. Appleton & Company, of New York—the publishers of the works of Spencer, Huxley, Darwin, and other eminent scientific teachers of our time. They have met with cordial recognition from leading reviewers and scientific teachers, and are having a steady and constantly increasing sale. The aim of the association has been to combine a popular mode of presentation with scientific accuracy of treatment; and this end has been fairly achieved. Each lecture is submitted to criticism by competent invited speakers when delivered, so that inaccuracies, if they exist, are discovered and corrected, and both sides of all disputed topics are fairly presented. A full abstract of the discussion is published with the lectures, which greatly adds to their value in many instances for all who desire scientific accuracy and have faith that the truth is best discovered by the free use of the enlightened reason.

The membership of the Brooklyn Ethical Association, which has gradually grown from year to year with no backward steps, now includes between two and three hundred ladies and gentlemen, of whom more than two thirds are active members, resident in Brooklyn and New York. The remainder includes a number of non-resident associate members, whose homes are in different portions of the United States and England, and fifty-five corresponding members, comprising some of the best-known names of those eminent in science and literature the world over. Among those who have accepted membership in the association and expressed their cordial sympathy with its work are Mr. Herbert Spencer and Prof. Thomas H. Huxley, of London, England; Alfred Russel Wallace, D. C. L., LL. D., of Parkstone, Dorset, England, the co-discoverer with Darwin of the law of natural selection; Prof. William Graham, M. A., of Queens College, Belfast, Ireland, author of The Creed of Science, Social Problems, etc.; M. Th. Ribot, of Paris, France, editor of the Revue Philosophique, perhaps the most eminent advocate of the doctrine of evolution in that country; Count Goblet d'Alviella, of Brussels, Belgium, author of Evolution of Contemporary Religious Thought; Prof. Ernst Haeckel, of the University of Jena, Saxe-Weimar, Germany, author of The History of Creation, Evolution of Man, etc.; Prof. A. Hjalmar Edgren, Chancellor of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden; Baboo Pratapa Chandra Roy, translator of the Mahabharâta; and Baboo Amrita Lai Roy, editor of The Hindoo Magazine, Calcutta, India; and in our own country, Prof. Joseph Le Conte, LL. D., of the University of California, author of Evolution as related to Religious Thought, etc.; Prof. William Emmette Coleman, of San Francisco, member of the American Oriental Society; Prof. Edward D. Cope, Ph. D., of the University of Pennsylvania, author of Origin of the Fittest, etc.; Prof. Edward S. Morse, of the Peabody Institute, Salem, Mass.; Prof. John Fiske, of Cambridge, Mass., author of Cosmic Philosophy, etc.; Prof. Otis T. Mason, of the National Museum, Washington, D. C, President of the American Folk Lore Society; Prof. Amos G. Warner, Superintendent of Public Charities, Washington, D. C, recently elected to the chair of Economics in the Leland Stanford University, California; Rev. William J. Potter, of New Bedford, Mass., President of the Free Religious Association; Rev. Minot J. Savage, of Boston, author of the Evolution of Morality, etc.; Rev. E. P. Powell, of Clinton, N. Y., author of Our Heredity from God, etc.; Andrew Dickson White, LL. D., late President of Cornell University and United States Minister to Russia; Mr. Frederick May Holland, of Concord, Mass.; Mr. J. W. Alfred Cluett, of Troy, N. Y.; Rev. John C. Kimball, of Hartford, Conn., and others.

Though the association is perhaps best known for its advocacy of evolution views, its terms of membership are entirely undogmatic and unsectarian, being conditioned only by good moral character and a tacit pledge to the use of the scientific method in its investigations. Its constitution expressly declares that "membership in this association shall not be regarded as committing one to any particular form of religious belief, nor as interfering with other religious or secular connections. No doctrinal test shall ever be required as a condition of membership. Any person of good moral character, over eighteen years of age, approving the objects of the association, may become a member on recommendation of the Committee on Membership, duly reported to and approved by the association." In order to popularize the conditions of membership the annual dues have been kept very low, being at present only two dollars per annum. The conditions for non-resident membership are similar to those for active membership, the dues being the same, and non-resident members being entitled to receive without further expense "publications of the association of a value not exceeding the annual membership fee." Corresponding membership, which does not involve any pecuniary obligation to the association, is bestowed on such persons in sympathy with its aims as the Board of Trustees may nominate and the association elect.

On the 5th day of February, 1891, the Brooklyn Ethical Association was duly incorporated under the laws of the State of New York, its objects being stated as follows:

"a. The scientific study of ethics, politics, economics, sociology, religion, and philosophy, and also of physics and biology as related thereto.

"b. The application of the results of such studies to the problems of practical philanthropy and statesmanship.

"c. The procurement, preparation, and delivery of popular lectures, expositions, and discussions, and the circulation of the same, together with other printed matter related to such subjects.

"d. The promotion of unity and harmony among the friends of progress by correspondence, friendly intercourse, and the application of the scientific method to social, religious, and political reforms.

"e. The maintenance of a library for the purpose of more effectually carrying out the objects of the association."

The association long since outgrew whatever theological limitation may have been presumably implied by its connection with a Unitarian society. Its membership now includes a minority of avowed Unitarians, together with orthodox Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Friends, and people of other diverse religious connections, as well as agnostics and liberals of various stripes and degrees of belief or unbelief.

The success of the association in recent years and the extension of its work into new fields of practical investigation have been due in no small degree to the faith, wisdom, energy, and enthusiasm of Mr. James Avery Skilton, for three years its corresponding secretary and an untiring worker in its behalf. Mr. Skilton is a member of Plymouth Church, a graduate of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, N. Y., and the Wesleyan University of Middletown, Conn., and with a thorough scientific education combines a large experience in practical affairs and long acquaintance and thorough sympathy with the doctrine of evolution as expounded by Mr. Spencer, Mr. Fiske, and its ablest advocates in Europe and America. With a clear insight into the causes of social phenomena, he possesses great independence of mind and judgment. Though temporarily withdrawn from official connection with the association, he continues his membership, and is in thorough sympathy with its work and aims.

Mr. Herbert Spencer has manifested his sustained interest in the objects and work of the association by frequent correspondence and generous commendation of its efforts and accomplishments. After declining membership in the French Academy and the leading scientific bodies of Europe, he paid the Brooklyn Ethical Association the high compliment of accepting its corresponding membership. The cordial feeling on his part is heartily reciprocated by every member of the association, and it has fallen to the lot of some of its representatives to be honored by the privilege of defending Mr. Spencer against the unjust assaults of his critics on this side of the Atlantic. Happily, he has lived to see his great work almost accomplished, and its purport much better understood than it was two decades ago. Nowhere has it found firmer or more appreciative friends than in America. That the Ethical Association has been able in a modest way to take up and carry on the work of popularizing evolution views so ably begun by the founder of The Popular Science Monthly is not the least among the sources of congratulation in the judgment of its members.

To continue this work, and by means thereof to aid in the scientific solution of those vast and impending problems of our social and political life in the discussion of which, under the prevailing a priori and empirical methods, wisdom has often been obscured by a multitude of unscientific and conflicting counsels, is their continued ambition, and to this end they solicit the sympathy and co-operation of all consenting minds.


Several travelers in Africa remark upon the better condition of the negroes in proportion as they are remote from the white men. Mr. Alfred Coode Hone, in his book, Tanganyika, which records his eleven years' experiences in central Africa, says that along almost any section of the continent, from coast to center, "the farther the traveler advances into the interior, the better is the condition of the natives found to be; less drunkenness, less immorality, more industry and independence." Mr. Wilmot Brooke, says the London Spectator, writing of the west coast, tells us the same story, with a more severe reference to the exterior influences inimical to the African peoples. Describing the degradation of the coast tribes and its causes, he adds, "Last of all, they are dragged lower still by their contact with the white man." As he ascended the Niger, the squalid villages were seen no more; they were replaced by fine, clean, open towns, with thousands of inhabitants, and he entered a new world, physical, political, social, and religious.
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Corresponding members.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Corresponding members.