I mention several famous Old South names when I give visitors a tour of our sanctuary. I always talk about Thomas Thacher because he was our first settled senior pastor, and wrote the earliest medical tract in the United States. I highlight the roles that Samuel Sewall, Samuel Adams, and Phillis Wheatley play in our colorful history. If there is time and interest, I might talk about the role that Thomas Prince’s extraordinary library played in preserving New England’s early history. But I rarely talk about Old South’s 17th senior pastor, the Reverend Russell Henry Stafford. This is unfortunate, because Reverend Stafford is a pivotal figure in the life of the Old South Church in Boston.
Building a Modern Church Community
No discussion of Dr. Stafford’s ministry is complete without talking about the role he played in building Old South’s governance, building, and community. He established the Board of Trustees and several committees, including an early version of the Christian Service & Outreach Committee. Dr. Stafford initiated the yearly practice of having a “canvass,” the precursor for Old South’s modern stewardship campaigns. In doing so, Dr. Stafford helped ensure a strong financial foundation for Old South. He oversaw the construction of the Gordon Chapel, the Mary Norton Hall, the Guild Room, the pre-school space, and the Senior Minister’s Study (Bowers, 2020). Describing Old South as “an auditorium for a homiletical soloist” (Stafford, 1969, p.24), Dr. Stafford sought to expand the church’s activities beyond Sunday worship and created broader opportunities for church fellowship. One member was so overwhelmed by all the new activities that she looked at the church bulletin and tearfully asked, “Dr., I couldn’t possibly do all the things you have in the bulletin now…Why do we have to do so much?” (Bowers, 2020).
Dr. Stafford also transformed the Old South Church in Boston into a more democratic institution. Before his arrival, Deacons served unlimited, life-long terms. Under Stafford’s watch, the church members rotated off the Board of Deacons so that more people had the opportunity to serve in this capacity. He was the first senior pastor to appoint women to leadership positions throughout the church. Prior to Dr. Stafford’s arrival, members owned their pews and consequently, seating was reserved. He worked to make pews free and available to all worshippers (Bowers, 2020).
Preaching During the Great Depression
Russell Henry Stafford’s eighteen-year tenure at Old South began in 1927 and ended in 1945. These years brought unique challenges. Within two years of his ministry, the nation plunged into the Great Depression, and Dr. Stafford did not hesitate to preach about the role he believed Christians should play in preventing future economic catastrophes. In a 1933 sermon titled “The Sins of the Social Order,” Dr. Stafford expressed his impatience with economic inequality in the nation, and he singled out what he referred to as “a materialistic standard of values'' (Stafford, 1933, p. 340) as the source of these economic disparities. He lamented that these values were “the root of the grand chaotic scramble of modern industry for preferment and riches–a scramble in which there has been no leisure to give heed to problems of co-ordination and distribution, so that we are brought inevitably to the present absurd and tragic breakdown” (Stafford, 1933, p.340). For the Reverend Dr. Stafford, it was imperative that Christians renounce materialism and value humankind more than possessions. If enough Christians promoted this ethos, the “sins of the social order” (greed & inequality) would come to an end.
The Role of the Church During War
Dr. Stafford did not feel that it was his role to preach about war. Nevertheless, he preached several sermons about the importance of the Christian faith during the dark days of World War II. In his 1942 sermon titled “Christ Victorious,” Dr. Stafford urged the congregation to live as Easter people by remembering that Jesus overcame His suffering, and that God did not abandon Him on the Cross (Stafford, 1942). That same year, Dr. Stafford preached a sermon called “The Church in War and Peace,” and he said, “In war and in peace, the patriotic duty of the Church is to help America keep calm, be civilized, and become Christian” (Stafford, 1942, p.4). He believed that the Church could help keep America calm by witnessing to the “everlasting creative peacefulness of God, the Master of Workman of us all” (Stafford, 1942, p.6). By “civilized,” Stafford meant that Christians could sustain their spiritual and moral strength by enjoying the arts and keeping “these imperishable riches before the minds of all the people.” When he spoke of becoming Christian, Dr. Stafford did not mean to imply that he thought everyone should convert to Christianity. Rather, he meant that becoming Christian was an ongoing spiritual discipline that asked people to keep believing that there was an eternal truth that transcended the horrors of the war.
Dr. Stafford was particularly concerned about what would happen after the war. As a World War I chaplain, he had already witnessed the aftermath of the Great War, and in a 1943 sermon, he made no secret of the fact that he felt the League of Nations had failed (Stafford, 1943, p. 3). As early as 1941, Dr. Stafford spoke of the need for a “world commonwealth” or “super state” that would protect its member states from any future wars. It was the role of the Christian to promote that idea of a world commonwealth in order to bring about a “true commonwealth” of all humanity (Stafford,1941).
While speaking eloquently about his hopes for a “true commonwealth,” Dr. Stafford also expressed his desire to see Americans live up to the ideals that they were fighting so hard to defend. In “Responsible Freedom,” Dr Stafford preached: “If we would help set the world’s house in order, we must set our own house in order tn order too– not merely for consistency’s sake, but because we cannot get far if we try to live one way in international relations while living another in internal relations (Stafford, 1943 p.6). By “internal relations,” Dr. Stafford was referring to racial inequality. A societal failure to promote racial justice would show that the US did not truly care about democracy or lasting peace.
Remembering the Reverend Dr. Henry Russell Stafford
There is a great deal of scholarship about several of our past Senior Ministers. Religious historians still write about the Reverends Thacher, Willard, Prince, and Gordon. Notable Members such as Samuel Adams, Samuel Sewall, and Phillis Wheatly have helped keep Old South’s name in history books. But we should not forget to mention the name of Henry Russell Stafford. He is the pastor who transformed Old South into the active, democratic community that it is today and rose to the challenge of preaching during the Great Depression and World War II. I will be proud to mention his name the next time I am a docent.
- Bowers, L. (2020). Russell Henry Stafford. Old South Church in Boston, 1669-2019 A Concise Theological, Historical, & Whimsical Encyclopedia (pp. 524-527). The Old South Church in Boston.
- Meek, F. (1968). An Interview with Russell Henry Stafford. The Old South Church in Boston Archive.
- Stafford, R.H. (1942). Christ Victorious. A Sermon Preached at the Old South Church in Boston.
- Stafford, R.H. (1941). Empire or Commonwealth? A Sermon Preached at the Old South Church in Boston.
- Stafford, R.H.(1943). Responsible Freedom. A Sermon Preached at the Old South Church in Boston.
- Stafford, R.H. (1933). The Sins of the Social Order. A Sermon Preached at the Old South Church in Boston.