Preston Bradley (18 August 1889 - 1 June 1983)
Bradley, who was born in Linden, Michigan, was the son of Anna Elizabeth (Warren) Bradley and Robert McFarlan Bradley, a blacksmith. He graduated from Linden High School in 1905, and for the following year studied at Alma College, in Michigan. From 1906 to 1909, he studied law at Flint, Michigan, and was at the University of Michigan from 1909 to 1910. From 1907 to 1909, he was a student pastor (Presbyterian) at the Grand Blane Church in Grand Blane, Michigan, then became student pastor in Chicago at the Church of Providence (Presbyterian), from 1911 to 1912, withdrawing in 1912 in order to preach independently.
He founded Peoples Church in Chicago, 5 July 1912, a church for various peoples. The congregation first met at the corner of Clark and Addison Streets. On 5 October 1913, they moved to the Wilson Avenue Theater. Bradley was a lecturer on drama, philosophy, art, and literature. He was a member of the Art Institute, the Little Theatre Society, the Drama League of America, the London State Society (England), Phi Phi Alpha (Alma). According to Who's Who, his clubs were the Chicago Press and Progressive, Playgoers. His address in Chicago was that of the Chicago Press Club.
Bradley served in Presbyterian and Congregational churches before attending Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute. There, he became disillusioned with Christian fundamentalism and adopted what he called “Christian Unitarianism,” a type of liberal religious humanism. He organized his own People's Church of Chicago in 1912.
Minister for 50 Years
By 1926, he built a $750,000 church on Chicago's North Side that was five floors high, and it had two balconies and a large stage. Bradley, its minister for more than fifty years, became known as leader of "one of the most largely attended liberal churches in the world." His radio ministry, aired first in 1924 over Radio WQJ and later to Radio WLS, was claimed to have had several million listeners each week.
Time in a story (26 April 1937) reported that
- Peoples Churchgoers contribute $4,000 a week, fill its 1,400 seats to overflowing at Sunday morning and evening services. For 14 years—longer than any minister west of Pittsburgh—Dr. Bradley has broadcast his services, now gets 1,000 letters a week.
- Preacher Bradley, 48, drinks lemon juice before breakfast, walks an hour a day, spends his vacations piloting his 30-ft. cruiser on the lakes of northern Minnesota. An able angler, he became president of the Izaak Walton League of America in 1930, was made president emeritus when his four-year term expired. Fond of publicity, Preston Bradley gets it not only by preaching, reviewing books in his pulpit every Wednesday, making speeches nightly—his schedule for paid appearances extends into next March—but by such activities as serving on Illinois library, prison and school boards. Last year 10,000 Chicagoans signed a petition requesting him to seek the Republican mayoralty nomination to run against Mayor Kelly. Dr. Bradley said he preferred to round out 25 years with Peoples Church, from which he has been absent (because of illness) only five Sundays.
- At Dr. Bradley's jubilee dinner last week he was given a check for $2,000. Catholicism was represented, unofficially, by his good friend Judge John McGoorty, who, though a devout Catholic, is often called "assistant pastor of Peoples Church." Spokesman for Jewry was popular Rabbi Mann, who rejoiced that Adolf Hitler declined to allow Preston Bradley in Germany last year. Prayed Rabbi Mann, in Hebrew: "May you go on, dear Preston, from strength to strength. May your dust continue to serve even unto your 100th year."
Bradley's radio ministry featured starting in 1915 a radio soap opera, Guiding Light, that turned into the later daytime television show of the same name. It
- was the inspiration for the radio soap opera, and later daytime television show, Guiding Light. It started in Chicago in 1937 as a 15-minute radio drama. The show was created by soap opera legend Irna Phillips who wrote and created many of the first American soap operas including Another World, The Edge of Night, and As the World Turns.
- At the age of 19, Irna found herself unwed and pregnant. The baby’s father wanted nothing to do with her, and she ended up giving birth to a still-born baby. Irna took great comfort in the on-air sermons of Preston Bradley, and triumphed over tragedy. She used her own life as inspiration for her soap, and created the character of Reverend Doctor John Rutledge, minister of the Little Church of Five Points. The Rev. Rutledge left a lamp, a “guiding light,” burning in his study as a beacon for those who needed help. The show centered around Rev. Rutledge, his friends and family, and those who came to him for help. In 1956, with the advent of television, the cast did the same scripts for both TV and radio. Guiding Light has been around for more than 65 years, making it the longest running television show of all time. The 15,000th televised episode aired in September 2006.
Bradley's Religious Outlook
Bradley spoke from a lectern, not a pulpit. To one side was a bust of Abraham Lincoln, to the other a bust of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Above the choir, written in gold, were William Ellery Channing's words, "Live a life of faith and hope. Believe in the mighty power of truth and love." The building, called a temple, had "none of the architectural trappings of bygone ecclesiastical attitudes," Bradley said. "There is no tower, no medieval chancels and naves." Instead it had a sanctuary that was "an open room, airy, warm, inviting fellowship and the breezes of fresh ideas."
Social reformer and feminist Jane Addams, poet Carl Sandburg, and social reformer John Altgeld were friends who sometimes attended. He marched with Addams to support women's rights. In the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan boasted of having more than a million members, he spoke loudly and openly against the organization.
Bradley's thoughts on religion and sexuality definitely were not conservative: “I am old fashioned enough to believe in virginity and chastity before marriage,” he wrote, “but I do not consider variations from that code to be sinful in the sense that God will inflict everlasting punishmen. . . . Sexual force and sexual desire are natural things.”
At its peak, Bradley’s congregation had over 4,000 members. "How do you manage to draw such large crowds each week?" he was asked, reportedly telling a Meadville student, "Son, in order to fill the pews, you must first fill the pulpit."
According to Ancestry.com, the Social Security Death Index gives Bradley's date on birth as Aug. 18, 1888, and his date of death as June 1983. His last residence is listed as Stowe, Vermont. The Vermont Death Index lists his place of death as Morristown, Vermont, and his date of death as June 1, 1983.
(WAS, Eric Richendollar, 18 June 2008; Barry Andrews, 19 June 2008)
- Thomas Paine and Modern Liberalism; an extemporaneous sermon (Peoples Church of Chicago, 1920)
- Back to Methuselah (Peoples Church of Chicago, 1921)
- Abraham Lincoln, A Study in Genius (Peoples Church of Chicago, 1923)
- Mastering Fear (Bobbs-Merrill, 1935)
- Power From Right Thinking (Bobbs-Merrill, 1936)
- Life and You (Harper & Brothers, 1939)
- Courage for Today (Garden City Publishing, 1940)
- New Wealth For You (Stokes, 1941)
- My Daily Strength (Wilcox & Follett, 1946)
- Meditations and My Daily Strength (Permabooks, 1950)
- Happiness Through Creative Living (Hanover House, 1955)
- Along the Way, An Autobiography (David Mckay, 1962, with Harry Barnard)
- Between You and Me (Aspley House, 1967)
- Daniel Ross Chandler, The Reverend Dr. Preston Bradley (Exposition Press, 1971).
Today's Peoples Church
Upon his death and urban flight from the neighborhood where his temple was, membership decreased dramatically, and the Peoples Church very nearly had to close its doors. Instead, it became affiliated with the United Church of Christ while still maintaining its ties to the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Today, it has a small but active congregation. The church now leases space to R.E.S.T. (Residents for Effective Shelter Transitions), the largest homeless shelter on the north side. There is a meals program which serves three meals every day to approximately 150 people in need, an annual Memorial Day Picnic for the homeless, and the Empti-Spoon Job Club which offers job-placement assistance to people who have faced difficult obstacles when searching for work. Communion is served on the first Sunday of each month, a feature that did not occur in Bradley's church. Its website states that
- Peoples Church has affiliations with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Though the language of our worship is primarily Christian, our doors are open to all who seek to know the Divine.
- At Peoples, you will hear a proclamation of justice, an assurance of love, and a sincere welcome. In fact, all are welcome at Peoples...male or female, old or young, gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender or straight - you are welcome here. Whatever your language or color or economic status, whatever your gifts - you are welcome here.