By Nancy Noble, MHS Archivist/Cataloger
Rev. Duncan Howlett (1906-2003) — minister, Doctor of Philosophy, author, social justice activist, and…tree farmer? After an illustrious career in the ministry, Duncan Howlett retired to Maine, and began a whole new career as a tree farmer. Even then, he wouldn’t simply sit on his porch and watch his trees grow. He organized and was the first President of the Small Woodland Owners Association. One can find papers related to his work in Maine at the University of Maine, Orono.
Rev. Howlett’s papers regarding his life before moving to Maine – as well as when he lived in Maine and kept his fingers in his former life as a Unitarian clergyman – are now processed and available at Maine Historical Society. This collection (Coll. 2993) is voluminous (51.25 linear ft.) in content and subject matter.
So, who was Duncan Howlett?
Born in 1906 in Newton, Massachusetts, he studied law at Harvard and spent two years as a lawyer. In 1933, he yielded to a lifelong interest in religion and returned to Harvard where he was awarded the STB degree (Bachelor of Sacred Theology) with honors in 1936, while serving as Minister of the Second Church, Unitarian, in Salem, Massachusetts, having been ordained to the ministry in 1935. Howlett served at that church from 1933 to 1938. From there, he went to the First Unitarian Church in New Bedford (1938-1946). In September 1946 he became Minister of the First Church in Boston, Unitarian, a position he held for the next twelve years. In 1958, he was called to All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., the position from which he retired in 1968. In May of that year he was appointed to Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign staff.
Interested in public affairs during the entire range of his ministry, Howlett also played an active role in Unitarian denominational affairs, serving as President and Chairman of many national organizations, including the Unitarian Historical Society and the Washington, D.C. Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
A prolific author and writer, his works include: Man Against the Church; The Struggle Between Religion and Ecclesiasticism (1954); The Essenes and Christianity; An Interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1957); The Fourth American Faith (1964); The Critical Way in Religion (1980); and The Fatal Flaw at the Heart of Religious Liberalism (1995).
Howlett also wrote No Greater Love: The James Reeb Story (1966). James Reeb served under Howlett as assistant minister at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. Tragically, Reeb was later murdered while participating in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. The correspondence with the Reeb family is especially heartwarming.
Upon retiring from the active parish ministry in 1968, Howlett became deeply involved in the environmental movement, particularly in the area of forestry, after studying forestry at the University of Maine. In Maine, he organized and was the first President of the Small Woodland Owners Association, popularly known as SWOAM. The conservation of natural resources emphasizing the responsible management of woodlands on the part of citizen forest owners became a “second career” for him. But even while involved in the environmental movement, he still served in the religion and church realm, including as interim minsters at various churches in Westport, Connecticut, and Atlanta Georgia, and Acting Dean of the College Chapel at Mt. Holyoke College. He also continued to write books and travel on Unitarian related trips.
Duncan Howlett was first married to Margaret L. Merritt in 1931 who died just two years later. He later married Carolyn Abbot Chance in 1943 in Summit, New Jersey. He had four children: Margaret (Susan) Howlett Hasty, Albert D. Howlett, Richard C. Howlett, and Carolyn (Lynn) Korth. After living in Center Lovell, Maine, for the last 35 years of his life, Rev. Howlett died in 2003 at age 97.
Duncan Howlett’s papers were given to the Bangor Theological Seminary. When the seminary closed and the BTS records were transferred to Maine Historical Society, Rev. Howlett’s papers were included in that gift.
This collection contains many sermons, correspondence, and printed material. Subject matter includes the Civil Rights movement (including James Reeb), Howlett’s extensive travels, and the general day-to-day business of being a minister in the Unitarian Church, not only locally, but nationally and internationally. Howlett had an inquiring mind, and was interested in many subjects, as one can see from the various files of information he gathered over the years.
One of my favorite parts of the collection is Box 23, which contains materials regarding Howlett’s early travels in the mid-1930s, apparently after his first wife died. This part of his story includes his sailing in 1935 on various ships – including the Cunard White Star “Majestic” – to Paris, Persia, Singapore, and Calcutta — and an overland trip with a friend where they drove in a stock model Ford across Europe and Asia. Mementos and souvenirs in this box are from such exotic places as Agra, British Malaya, Tokyo, Delhi, Japan, Turkey, Hungary, Jerusalem, and Persia. Howlett was a lifelong traveler, and much of Coll. 2993 is evidence of this.
The Civil Rights materials are also fascinating, including hate mail. Rev. Howlett was in the thick of the movement, researching, writing, and preaching about it. From being involved in the grand sweeping movements, to corresponding to church members and international leaders, to the day-to-day details of running a church, this collection is rich in fleshing out this amazing man and the times he lived in. (There is a whole box on the “Sixties” with folder titles such as “Dancing in the aisle,” “Hippies,” and “Protest, dissent, etc.”)
Howlett also corresponded with Karol Grycz-Smilowski (1885-1959), a Polish Lutheran priest who sought to reestablish the Polish Brethren of the period 1565-1658.
Duncan Howlett was a mover and a shaker in his world of being a Unitarian minister as well as a social justice activist – there was no separation of church and state in his eyes. Maine Historical Society is honored to be a repository of his records.