In 1876, the New York Society for Ethical Culture (NYSEC) was founded by Dr. Felix Adler, who was both visionary and revolutionary. Dr. Adler proposed a new movement which would work toward the advancement of social justice for all. He suggested that the movement should further the principles of ethics among adults and children through education, and members of the Society should express their religious consciences through moral and humane actions. These ideas remain the cornerstones of the philosophy of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, which was incorporated on February 21, 1877.
In adhering to its social and moral imperatives, the Society quickly initiated two major projects in 1877. First was the establishment of the District Nursing Service, a precursor of the Visiting Nurse Service, which is still active today. The second project was the founding of the first free kindergarten in the United States, and in 1880 the Workingman's School was chartered. In 1895, the School was reorganized, becoming The Ethical Culture School. An upper school, The Fieldston School, was added in 1928.
Under Dr. Adler's direction, the Society worked to improve conditions in tenement houses, created the Mothers' Society to Study Child Nature (later to become the Child Study Association), and helped to found the Visiting and Teaching Guild for Crippled Children in 1889. Stanton Coit and members of the Society helped found the Settlement House movement in New York. In 1901, Camp Felicia, which offered children of the city's slums a taste of country life, was founded by the Down-Town Ethical Society. Members of the Society staffed clubs, libraries, gymnasiums, job training programs, a kindergarten, a mothers' club, educational classes, and two employment bureaus, which evolved into independent organizations like The Hudson Guild, Henry Street Settlement and the Neighborhood Guild.
Society members also contributed in the area of individual rights. Although women had been excluded initially from membership in the Society and relegated to a Ladies Auxiliary, in 1903 the Society hired a woman, Anna Garlin Spencer, as Associate Leader.
While still under the leadership of Dr. Adler, the Society provided several prominent Americans with a platform to speak out about civil rights, including Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson. Johnson, writer, activist and one of the founders of the Harlem Renaissance, was a member of the New York Society for fifteen years. In 1909, Leaders of the Society for Ethical Culture signed a petition calling for the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Dr. Adler also served on the first Executive Committee of the National Urban League,
beginning in 1910.
Also in 1910, the Society, which had been meeting in Carnegie Hall, erected a meeting house at 64th Street and Central Park West, next to the School which had broken ground in 1902. The building was designed by noted architect Robert D. Kohn (who later served as the Society’s president). This landmark building features hand‐carved oak paneling and extraordinary stained glass windows. It is a distinctive example of Art Nouveau architecture.
Time and again, Adler and those who followed him, showed the capacity to recognize the most urgent social issues of the time and to lead others to take up the challenges these posed. When he died in 1933, he left behind a Society of committed members and Leaders. Leader John Lovejoy Elliott, who served until his death in 1942, helped to found the National Civil Liberties Bureau, forerunner of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In the 1940s, Society Leaders Jerome Nathanson and Algernon D. Black struck a balance between social activism and intellectual pursuits. Black worked actively against discrimination in housing, chaired the Civilian Police Review Board, and participated in the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. In 1944, he founded the Encampment for Citizenship, a summer program for young adults with the purpose of encouraging political activism and volunteerism that sought to educate its participants about civic responsibility, participation in government, and tolerance of diversity. Eleanor Roosevelt was an early supporter of the program.
In fact, the former First Lady was a long time friend and supporter of the Society and its work. On April 26, 1949 she addressed a Special Meeting of the Membership of NYSEC. Reflecting on the Society’s many achievements, she said, “I think that you have probably contributed more than any other group in the City to better conditions in homes, better conditions between various race groups within the City, and I think that is a very great achievement.”
In 1959, the Society's Women's Conference was a major participant in developing the Planned Parenthood Clinic on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The Society's Social Service Board sponsored numerous community service activities, including a tutorial program begun in 1965, which led to Public
School Partnerships. An ongoing year‐round program for older members was begun in the 1970s.
In more recent years our Social Service Board helped organize a Homeless Artists and Writers Workshop and began co‐sponsoring a homeless shelter in the meeting house. The SSB also founded the Supervised Visitation Project which allows parents who have been separated from their children to
visit with them in a safe and supportive environment.
Over the past twenty years, the Society has worked on issues like repeal of the death penalty with New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws with the Correctional Association and Drop the Rock and partnering with The Innocence Project to raise money for DNA Testing of wrongfully accused prisoners.
Currently we host hundreds of community programs a year with advocacy, social justice and education still at the forefront of our work. We hold forums on key social issues, and discussions on ethics and philosophy. We partner with organizations like The Nation Institute, Demos, Amnesty International and the ACLU to co‐sponsor events that serve the public good. Issues of war, social policy, and human rights have been discussed here by notable guests including Al Gore, Paul Krugman, Cornel West, Naomi Klein, Toni Morrison and others.
To this day the New York Society for Ethical Culture remains guided by our founding principles of social justice for all and the advancement of all through ethical action. We continue to be grounded in the ideals that all human beings have worth and that it is our responsibility to make the world a better place.