John Worsley Austin
1898 - 1902
John Worsley Austin was born on November 9, 1872 at Cirencester, Gloucestershire, England, son of Unitarian minister Henry Austin and Emma Gittings Austin. Austin graduated with a Bachelors degree from London University in 1891, but due to health issues he took a year off to travel to Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania. He returned to England in 1892 and matriculated at Manchester College in Oxford where he studied for the ministry and on vacations did missionary work among the poor. Upon his 1895 graduation Austin’s outstanding record of scholarship at Oxford earned him the highest distinction Hibbert Travelling Scholarship affording him 3 years of travel funding and tuition. He first enrolled in Leipzig University and then went on to the University of Berlin to study philosophy. Returning to England in the spring of 1896, Austin completed a Masters degree at London University and in 1897 set sail for Massachusetts where he entered Harvard Divinity School and earned a divinity degree the following year.
In the spring of 1898 shortly before his Harvard graduation Austin began to give sermons in Unitarian churches near Cambridge. He must have made a profound impression because on June 20, 1898 Dedham church leaders at a special meeting of the congregation called Austin to become First Church minister. By that time Austin had returned to England, but sent a letter to Parish Committee chair, stating that ”I feel confident I can do good work there. It will be my most earnest endeavor not only to keep up the vitality of the church, the interest in principles and truths for which it stands, but if possible to bring it forward into even greater success.” Two pieces of archival evidence bear out the fulfillment of Austin’s intents. First, the pamphlet “First Parish in Dedham: Historical Sketch” lists the many First Church programs and committees that continued to flourish under Austin’s leadership, including the Sunday School which fostered the study of world religions, the Women’s Alliance with its continuing support of Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes, the Ladies Benevolent Society which provided emergency monies for the victims of the 1900 Galveston Flood, the Lend -a-Hand Circle that had adopted a Native American child at the Montana Industrial School, the What She Could Circle that endowed a bed at the Boston Floating Hospital and sent hospital sheets to the hospitals for the soldiers wounded in the war in Cuba, and a new group that Austin founded, The Young People’s Society, that was set up to foster the Unitarian values of young adults through lectures, plays and drives.
A second piece of evidence of Austin’s accomplishments during his four-year pastorate in Dedham is the church leadership’s response to his May1,1902 letter of resignation due to family issues back in England. A May 20th 1902 special meeting of the church both refused to accept his resignation, stating “that recognizing the great value of the services of Mr. Austin – the remarkable unanimity and good feeling which has existed during his ministry, the faithful way in which he has devoted himself to their interests, to the entire acceptance of the members- his great ability and success as a preacher- his influence and force in parochial duties- his power in retaining and increasing the influence in Dedham of our Unitarian faith, and his high character as a man. faith that by mutual cooperation yet greater and happier results would be realized in the future.” The letter signed by 138 parishioners went on to offer Austin an unprecedented paid two-month summer vacation.
Nevertheless, Austin did indeed return to England to stay in the summer of 1902 and in 1903 became minister of Church of the Messiah in Birmingham. Shortly afterwards on July 4, 1905, Austin and Norah Priestley Austin married and eventually had two children together. Of Austin’s 11 years of ministry in Birmingham, parishioners recalled that “his broad human sympathy won for him a far-reaching personal influence.” During this decade Austin was equally successful as an author, publishing two books, Unitarian Christianity and the New Theology and Practical Education. A Criticism and an Appeal, along with two collections of sermons. Sadly, Austin passed away after a long illness at the age of 42 on March 10, 1914. His London Inquirer obituary observed that “what drew his friends so closely to him was the charm of his personal qualities. He had quiet and deep affections and a strong honesty of soul which kept him from the snares of religious rhetoric and made him modest about his intellectual gifts…. He was growing all the time. We know not what finer thing can be said of a spiritual leader than this, that he was more teachable at forty than at thirty, less concerned with theories and doctrines about religion because religion itself, the transfiguring light of Christian faith, had claimed him for its own.”
lecture notes | The National Archives
Unitarian Christianity and the new theology (1907 edition) | Open Library
Obituaries of Unitarian Ministers (unitarianhistory.org.uk)
John Worsley Austin 1872-1914 - Ancestry®
Microsoft Word - UHS BIB PEOPLE F.doc (unitarianhistory.org.uk)
Two Memories by J.M. Lloyd Thomas and Louisa Priestley Smith: Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1914.
Austin Acceptance Letter quote from Special Meeting June 20th in First Church Records 1840-1903