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A. Bronson Alcott. At age fifty-three. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-54729).

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Alcott, A. Bronson (29 November 1799–04 March 1888), Transcendentalist and reformer, was born Amos Bronson Alcox in Wolcott, Connecticut, the son of Joseph Chatfield Alcox and Anna Bronson, farmers. Farming the rocky Connecticut soil was not lucrative, and Alcott worked hard with his parents to help support seven younger siblings, thereby limiting his opportunities for a formal education. He attended the local district school until age ten, but thereafter his intellectual growth largely depended on his own reading and discussions with friends of a similar scholarly bent, the first being his cousin William Andrus Alcott. William later attended Yale College and established a career as a physician and popular author of health manuals, but continuing poverty prevented Bronson from obtaining a college education. At age fifteen he, like many of his young Connecticut contemporaries, began peddling small manufactured goods, first in Massachusetts and New York, then in Virginia and the Carolinas....

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Anderson, Matthew (25 January 1845–11 January 1928), Presbyterian pastor, educator, and social reformer, was born in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, the son of Timothy Anderson and Mary Croog. One of fourteen children, he was raised in the comforts of a rural, middle-class home, less than thirty miles from historic Gettysburg. On a typical day of his youth, he faced the physical demands of farm life and experienced the movement back and forth between two cultures. One, dominated by commerce and materialism, was uncharacteristically open to the Andersons, who owned lumber mills and real estate at a time when most black Americans were dehumanized and disenfranchised by chattel slavery. The other was a culture defined by close family ties and Presbyterian piety. At home Matthew heard Bible stories and dramatic tales of runaway slaves; indeed, religious piety and the pursuit of racial freedom were dominant themes in his life. These early experiences inspired Anderson so deeply that, by the time he left Greencastle in 1863, he had decided on the ministry as his vocation. Study at Oberlin College was the first step toward serving his religious faith, his racial group, and his vision of social justice....

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Blaustein, David (05 May 1866–26 August 1912), rabbi, educator, and social worker, was born in Lida, Russian Poland, the son of Isaiah Blaustein and Sarah Natzkovsky. The family was of humble means, and David was eight years old when his father died. Nine years later he ran away from home to the Prussian town of Memel in order to obtain an education. He then journeyed to Schwerin, the capital of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, where he enrolled in a Jewish teacher’s preparatory school under the leadership of Dr. Fabian Feilchenfeld. His intention was to be a cantor-shochet-teacher to the German Jews, but Bismarck’s ban on Russian Jews in Germany forced him to emigrate to America....

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Fee, John Gregg (09 September 1816–11 January 1901), minister, abolitionist, and educational reformer, was born in Bracken County, Kentucky, the son of John Fee and Sarah Gregg, farmers and middle-class slaveholders. Fee’s parents inculcated in their son a belief in the value of education. After attending a subscription school, Fee pursued a classical education at both Augusta College in Bracken County and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, eventually receiving his B.A. degree in 1840 from Augusta College. Having been converted to evangelical Christianity at age fourteen, he decided on the ministry as his profession. During 1842 and 1843 he studied at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he embraced an egalitarian abolitionism that assumed the equality of races. In September 1844 Fee married one of his converts, Matilda Hamilton, convinced that she alone possessed the qualities needed to withstand the hostility he expected from the “Slave Power.” They had six children....

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Kerby, William Joseph (20 February 1870–27 July 1936), Catholic priest and promoter of professional social work, was born in Lawler, Iowa, the son of Irish immigrants Daniel P. Kerby, a prosperous banker, and Ellen Rockford. One of ten children, he attended St. Joseph’s (now Loras) College in Dubuque. After graduating in 1889, he entered St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Dubuque on 21 December 1892. He then continued the study of theology at the recently opened Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where the relatively liberal Belgian professor ...

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Kohler, Max James (22 May 1871–24 July 1934), jurist, historian, and Jewish communal worker, was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Kaufmann Kohler and Johanna Einhorn. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Germany, and both his father and grandfather, David Einhorn, were leading rabbis of the Reform Movement in American Judaism. Upon the death of Kohler’s grandfather in 1879, his father assumed Einhorn’s pulpit at New York’s Congregation Beth El, and the family moved to that city. There he grew up in an atmosphere infused with a devotion to both religious values and scholarly pursuits. After completing high school, Kohler attended the College of the City of New York, where he won several important literary prizes. Following his graduation in 1890, he entered Columbia University, from which he received both M.A. (1891) and LL.B. (1893) degrees. He was admitted to the New York State bar in 1893 and became an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, resigning after four years to start a private law practice. In 1906 he married Winifred Lichtenauer, who died in 1922. No children resulted from the marriage....

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Oxnam, Garfield Bromley (14 August 1891–12 March 1963), Methodist bishop, ecumenical leader, and social reformer, was born in Sonora, California, the son of Thomas Henry Oxnam, a Cornish immigrant mining engineer, and Mary Ann “Mamie” Jobe. His father’s religious enthusiasm found expression as a Methodist lay minister and his mother’s intense piety suffused the Oxnam home in Los Angeles, assuredly influencing his teenage decision to pledge his life to Christ. Forced to leave high school because of his father’s ill health and financial reverses, Oxnam both clerked and attended a business school before entering the University of Southern California, then a Methodist institution. At USC he earned solid grades, athletic renown, and repute as a campus leader....

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Rushdoony, R. J. (25 Apr. 1916–8 Feb. 2001), theologian, Presbyterian minister, political activist, and education reformer, was born Rousas John Rushdoony in New York City to Armenian refugees fleeing Turkish persecution during World War I. Presbyterian minister Yeghiazar Khachadour and Vartanoush (Gazarian) Rushdouni’s first son, George, perished in the Turkish siege of Van, and the family immigrated to the United States via Russia. The Rushdoonys anglicized their names—Yeghiazar opting for an abbreviated Y. K. and Vartanoush adopting Rose, the English translation of her name—and settled in a growing Armenian community in Kingsburg, California. Y. K. took his family with him as he served as a pastor to Armenian communities in California and Michigan during the 1920s and 1930s. As the family moved about the United States, R. J. Rushdoony learned English and resolved to follow his father into the ministry....

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William James Simmons. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-90544).

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Simmons, William James (26 June 1849–30 October 1890), Baptist leader, educator, and race advocate, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of enslaved parents, Edward Simmons and Esther (maiden name unknown). During his youth, Simmons’s mother escaped slavery with him and two of his siblings, relocating in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Simmons’s uncle, Alexander Tardieu (or Tardiff), a shoemaker, became a father for the children and a protector and provider for the fugitive slave family. He moved them among the cities of Philadelphia, Roxbury, Massachusetts, and Chester, Pennsylvania, constantly eluding persistent “slave catchers,” before permanently taking residence in Bordentown, New Jersey. While Simmons never received formal elementary or secondary school education, his uncle made a point of teaching the children to read and write. As a youth Simmons served as an assistant to a white dentist in Bordentown. At the age of fifteen he joined the Union army, participating in a number of major battles in Virginia and finding himself at Appomattox in 1865. After the war, Simmons once again worked briefly as a dental assistant. He converted and affiliated with the white Baptist church in Bordentown in 1867, announced his call to the ministry, and ventured to college with the financial support of church friends....

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See Thurman, Howard W.

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Thurman, Howard W. (18 November 1899?–10 April 1981), and Howard W. Thurman (18 November 1899–10 April 1981), theologian, educator, and civil rights mentor, was born in Daytona, Florida, the son of Saul Solomon Thurman, a railroad worker, and Alice Ambrose, a domestic worker. Howard grew up under the tremendous influence of his maternal grandmother, who had previously been enslaved. His grandmother instilled in him a critical reading of the Bible. In 1915 he attended high school at Florida Baptist Academy in Jacksonville, Florida. Upon graduation, he enrolled in Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1923. By 1925 Thurman became an ordained Baptist minister, receiving his first pastorate in Oberlin, Ohio, at Mount Zion Baptist Church. In 1926 Thurman graduated from Colgate Rochester Theological Seminary. Following his brief stint at Mount Zion, Thurman moved on to a joint appointment as professor of religion and director of religious life at both Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta, Georgia. Here Thurman pondered a question that would motivate his life's work: "How can we manage the carking fear of the white man's power and not be defeated by our own rage and hatred?"...