If I was a student when Harry F. Ward was teaching at Union Theological Seminary, I would have taken every one of his classes. Most prominently known as a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ward was the first professor of Social Ethics at Union, teaching from 1916 to 1941. Criticized for his leftist politics his entire career, in 1953 Ward was one of three Methodist ministers named by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a communist conspirator. He denied the charges and stated in a letter to the New York Times, “My judgments and actions concerning political and economic issues are derived from the basic ethical principles of the religion of Jesus, of which I am a minister and a teacher.”
Through processing the Ward Papers, which are now available at the Burke Library Archives, I read through course outlines, lectures notes and student papers on a range of topics including the histories of the labor movement’s relationship with the Church, as well as theories of social change covering every major revolution from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Below are just a few examples of the ways in which Ward influenced a generation of scholars, church leaders and organizers through his teaching career at Union.
Students in Christian Ethics 24, taught by Ward in 1930, were each required to present an ethical dilemma for discussion. One of these students was none other than Myles Horton, who went on to found the Highlander Folk School in 1932 and would serve as its director until 1961. Now known as the Highlander Education and Research Center, this institution was important educational and training center for both the Labor and Civil Rights Movements, and was attended by figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Reflecting the Appalachian context in which he grew up and to which he intended to return , the case study Horton presented read in part: “In sections of the Southern mountains one has to choose between being an ultra-fundamentalist or an infidel….To one planning work in this section, the problem is: how can one retain the confidence of the people, and, at the same time, be intellectually honest.”
Beyond the classroom Ward also supported his students’ activism. In 1929 Union student James Dombrowsky made a speech in favor of striking miners in Elizabethtown, Tennessee, stating that the ethics of Jesus should guide the actions of those involved. When he tried to leave town, Dombrowsky was arrested on trumped up charges that he was an accomplice to a murder. While in jail Dombrowsky sent a telegram to Ward. Ward immediately contacted lawyers to assure his release, and he was set free after 24 hours. The day of his release Dombrowsky wrote a letter to Ward. Referencing a course he took from Ward, he wrote, “I am really grateful for this additional contribution to my education, which has certainly moved at a rapid rate in the past twenty-four hours.”
As a doctoral student working at the intersections of the academy, the Church and grassroots organizations, I am grateful to have worked on the papers of a Union professor who embodied a commitment to the struggles of the poor and working class. Although a figure largely unknown to Union students today, I am hopeful that the availability of his papers will ensure that Ward takes a rightful place among the “Union canon” to influence another generation of scholars, church leaders and organizers.