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HUG 1389

Fenn, William W. (William Wallace), 1862-1932. Papers of William Wallace Fenn : an inventory

Harvard University Archives


Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: HUG 1389
Repository: Harvard University Archives
Creator: Fenn, William W. (William Wallace), 1862-1932.
Title: Papers of William Wallace Fenn, 1874-1932
Date(s): 1874-1932
Quantity: 7 cubic feet (21 document boxes)
Abstract: William Wallace Fenn (1862-1932), Unitarian minister and Bussey Professor of Theology at the Harvard Divinity School (1900-1932) was a scholar of New England religious life and thought. He served as Dean of the Divinity School from 1906 to 1922.

Immediate Source of Acquisition:

The Papers of William Wallace Fenn were originally held at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. They were relocated to the Harvard University Archives in November 1950. A small addition of lecture notes were a gift of Dan Huntington Fenn in 1950.

Processing Information:

Re-processed April 2004 by Dominic P. Grandinetti.
Re-processing included the consolidation of materials cataloged under seven separate call numbers, re-housing materials in the appropriate containers, establishment of series and subseries hierarchy, and the creation of this finding aid. The archivist placed the documents into acid-free folders, re-housed the materials into archival document boxes, and examined the folder contents to establish the date of the material. Call numbers beyond the base call number were eliminated. A list of these obsolete call numbersappears at the end of the finding aid.
Details about the re-processing and arrangement of each series are noted below.

Conditions on Use and Access:

Permission of the Harvard University Archives is required for access to the Papers of William Wallace Fenn. Please see the reference staff for further details.

Related Material

The Andover-Harvard Theological Library holds many of William Wallace Fenn's writings. Search HOLLIS (Harvard's online library system) for works by and about William Wallace Fenn.


William Wallace Fenn, Unitarian minister and Bussey Professor of Theology at the Harvard Divinity School (1900-1932), was a scholar of New England religious life and thought. He was recognized as an able administrator, energetic lecturer, and understanding friend.
Fenn was born on February 12, 1862 in Boston, Massachusetts to William Wallace and Hannah Morrill (Osgood) Fenn. Fenn's father worked as a clerk in a Boston hardware store and died less than seven weeks after his birth. He was an only child.
After graduating from the Boston Latin School in 1880, Fenn attended Harvard College and received his Bachelor of Arts in 1884. Fenn continued his graduate studies in New Testament theology at the Harvard Divinity School and received Master of Arts and Bachelor of Scared Theology degrees in 1887. Several years later in 1908, Fenn was given an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the Divinity School.
As a young man, Fenn was a member of the BostonMount Vernon Congregational Church. During his studies at Harvard he began to question his religious beliefs and converted to Unitarianism. Although he intended to teach upon graduation from Harvard University, financial considerations influenced his decision to seek a job as a minister.
Fenn's active ministry lasted thirteen years. In October 1887, he became minister of the newly organized Unity Church of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. During his stay in Pittsfield, Fenn oversaw the development of a strong and growing organization and the building of a new church building. In May 1891, Fenn accepted a ministerial position at the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. In Chicago, Fenn took a leading part in the missionary work of the American Unitarian Association in the western United States and again oversaw the building of a Unitarian chapel, this time near the University of Chicago. In concurrence with his ministerial duties, Fenn also served as the Shaw Lecturer on Biblical Literature at the Meadville Theological School in Chicago from 1892 to 1901 and later from 1905 to 1907. He also maintained his ties to Harvard University by serving as a member of the Board of Preachers from 1896 to 1898 and again from 1902 to 1905. Fenn left Chicago in March 1901 after he was invited to become the Bussey Professor of Theology at Harvard University.
Fenn was a loyal spokesman for the Unitarian church. He avoided emotional appeals in his preaching and believed in a more academic presentation of theology that he termed the "thinking pulpit". He advocated a pragmatic and functional approach to religion and called into question the major tenets of the increasingly dominant views of "liberal optimism". Fenn emphasized that Christianity was a layman's religion and that Jesus saw the world from a layman's point of view. He promoted a "General Theism" in which the universe found its unity in a vast controlling purpose. The primary religious goal of man was to discover the values of this controlling purpose and devote ones life to them.
Fenn taught at the Harvard Divinity School from 1901 until his death in 1932. He served as Dean of the school from 1906 to 1922. The most important event to take place during Fenn's tenure as dean was the merging of the Divinity School with the Andover Theological Seminary in 1922. The new school was named The Theological School in Harvard University from 1923 to 1933, after which the school returned to using Harvard Divinity School.
Prior to teaching at Harvard, Fenn's main interests of study involved the New Testament. However, after he began teaching at the Divinity School, Fenn expanded his course offerings to include new classes in Christian mysticism,theism, and New England Theology. Fenn was characterized as an exceptional teacher whose lectures were orderly, lucid, stimulating, and sometimes, eloquent. He was eager to awaken the minds of his students and respectful of their intelligence. Fenn tried never to impose his own views upon any of his students and insisted that they judge the merits of the theological systems described to them. Fenn was noted for the high standards that he maintained in the preparation of his courses and his excellent pastoral relations with his students both in school and after graduation. Moreover, Fenn was considered a prominent and highly respected figure with exceptional intellectual abilities, a great reserve and modesty about his own talents, and a thorough scholar.
Fenn studied the development of New England religious thought from the early days of Puritan settlements to the advent of early nineteenth century religious liberalism and became an acknowledged expert in this field. However, Fenn was reluctant to publish his research over his lifetime because he feared that his ideas might become fixed and inflexible. Nevertheless, some of the sermons and lectures that Fenn presented were published for distribution to a wider audience. His most noted writings were:" The Revolt against the Standing Order "in The Religious History of New England: King's Chapel Lectures (1917), Immortality and Theism (1921), The Christian Way of Life as Illustrated in the History of Religion in New England (1924), and The Theological Method of Jesus (published posthumously in 1938). In addition, Fenn published several booklets for Sunday school while still a minister in Chicago from 1890 to 1900.
Fenn was married to Faith Huntington Fisher of Lanesboro, Massachusetts on May 28, 1891. They had five children: Dorothy, Wallace, Roger, Donald, and Dan.
William Wallace Fenn died on March 6, 1932 after a brief illness and was buried in Weston, Vermont.

References used for this biography:

Series and Sub-series in the Collection

Scope of the Papers of William Wallace Fenn

The Papers of William Wallace Fenn document his religious teaching and scholarship both as a Unitarian minister and as a professor of theology at Harvard University. The bulk of the collection consists of teaching materials, sermons and lectures, and writings. These papers contain little about his personal life.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2016 November 9.

Obsolete Call Numbers

Container List