The movement was initiated in 1876 by Dr. Felix Adler with the founding of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. The society adopted as the condition of membership a positive desire to uphold by example and precept the highest ideals of living and to aid the weaker to attain those ideals. The aims of the society were stated as follows:
- “To teach the supremacy of the moral ends above all human ends and interests;
- “To teach that the moral law has an immediate authority not contingent on the truth of religious beliefs or of philosophical theories;
- “To advance the science and art of right living.”
Members of the society were free to follow and profess whatever system of religion they choose, the society confining its attention to the moral problems of life. Adler did himself have an ethical philosophy that deeply influenced how this was approached. A central precept was “Always act so as to elicit the best in others, and thereby in yourself.”
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 a free kindergarten for the children of working people, the first free kindergarten in America. In 1880 the Workingman’s School was chartered, a model institution for general and technical education in which the use of the kindergarten method in the higher branches of study was a distinctive feature. Each of its teachers was a specialist as well as an enthusiast in his subject; the Socratic method was followed. Pupils over seven were instructed in the use of tools. In 1895, the School was reorganized, becoming The Ethical Culture Schools. 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 the Child Study Association), and helped to found the Visiting and Teaching Guild for Crippled Children in 1889. The Society was also instrumental in the formation of the National Child Labor Committee and in calling for the formation of the NAACP. The Chicago Society organized The Bureau of Justice, the organization that preceded the Legal Aid Society.
The impulse that led originally to the formation of Ethical Societies sprang from Adler’s profound belief that human life must be treated as sacred and never violated. Adler believed that the emerging influence of secular society and the rise of scientific thinking in the public mind would make traditional religious metaphors less believable and compelling. Adler held that religion needed to evolve to keep pace with the evolution of politics, economics, and science. He was concerned because he believed religious communities to be essential because they are the one institution with the exclusive mission to sanctify life, teach ethical values, and provide a personal experience of living in a caring community. An Ethical Society would fulfill these roles, but in a way that was more in keeping with modernity.