The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Herron, George Davis
(January 21, 1862–October 9, 1925)

–clergyman, educator, author, and Social Gospel advocate–had an intensely religious but economically insecure childhood in Montezuma, Indiana. He remembered his mother, Isabella (Davis) Herron, as enveloped in prayer. His father, William Herron, guided his education at home with an ambitious reading program. A sickly boy, Herron found companions among heroic biblical and historical personages. He began work in the printers' trade at age 10 but after seven years entered the preparatory department of Ripon College in Wisconsin. His formal education ended after two years when he withdrew in 1881 for health and financial reasons. Two years later he married Mary V. Everhard, the mayor's daughter.

    Entering the ministry in 1883, Herron served a series of small Congregational churches in several states. He was self-conscious about his educational deficiencies and immersed himself in theology, philosophy, and social and economic literature. Contemporary liberal theological ideas and a growing body of social criticism affected him profoundly. In 1889 he became active in the Society of Christian Socialists, which proclaimed that Jesus' teachings implied a democratic socialism.

    Herron attracted wide attention in 1890 when he delivered a speech titled "The Message of Jesus to Men of Wealth" to Minnesota's Congregational Club. That message demanded self-sacrifice on behalf of others, which businessmen were particularly positioned to practice. Although his ideas were typical of the Protestant Social Gospel, Herron expressed them with unusual rhetorical power. This address led him to the position of associate pastor at the First Congregational Church in Burlington, Iowa, and then to a meteoric rise to leadership in the Social Gospel.

    Herron vigorously expanded the Burlington church's programs and began publishing collections of his sermons and lectures. His increasingly sharp social criticism evoked rumblings within the congregation, but he won the admiration of others, notably Carrie Rand, a wealthy widow, and her daughter Carrie, and President George A. Gates of Iowa College in Grinnell.

    Working with Gates, Carrie Rand endowed a chair in applied Christianity, to which Herron was appointed in mid 1893. Herron soon made Grinnell the center for the "Kingdom movement," which included summer "Schools of the Kingdom"; a periodical, the Kingdom (1894-1899); and the American Institute of Christian Sociology (1893). Prominent Social Gospel clergy and academicians contributed to these endeavors. Herron's classes initially drew astonishing crowds. In addition, his ideas inspired the founding of the Christian Commonwealth Colony in Georgia (1896-1900) and its periodical, the Social Gospel. Herron traveled widely to lecture to enthusiastic audiences.

    He lost much of his backing by the late 1890s, and the "Kingdom movement" disintegrated. Social Gospel academicians preferred an inductive social science to his normative, moralistic preachments. Influential clergymen faulted his sweeping dismissal of institutions as agents of reform. Distanced from the Social Gospel's meliorative approach, he lost much of his religious audience. Disenchantment among the Grinnell College trustees—over his teachings, absences, and neglect of family—led to a move for his ouster. After one attempt failed, he resigned in October 1899.

    A longtime socialist voter, he now endorsed socialism publicly as a movement that embodied the sacrificial love and social solidarity of primitive Christianity. In 1900 he campaigned for the Social Democratic Party presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs. He helped organize the Socialist Party of America in 1901, wrote for socialist publications, spoke at socialist meetings, and inspired several other ministers who played leadership roles in the party.

    Beginning in Burlington, the close relationship between Herron and Carrie Rand had invited rumors. In 1901, in short order, Mary Herron agreed to sue for divorce on grounds of desertion and cruelty, receiving a cash settlement from Rand for herself and the four Herron children; Herron and Rand married in a legal but unconventional ceremony; and a Congregational council in Iowa revoked his ordination. The uproar that followed lasted for years. The press hounded the newlyweds, and enemies of socialism made the story the centerpiece of an attack on socialism as antifamily. Unable to live peaceably in the United States, the Herrons moved to a villa near Florence, Italy, in 1905. Thereafter, they made numerous contributions to American socialism, including establishment of the Rand School of Social Science in New York City, the socialists' leading academic institution, with a trust from Carrie Rand Herron.

    During World War I, Herron broke with the socialists: first, with the Germans for support of their government, and next with the Americans for their opposition to American intervention. He corresponded with individual socialists, however, and his friendship with Debs remained unshakable. His enthusiasm for Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy led Wilson to use him in varied diplomatic assignments during and after the war. Herron considered Wilson's peace plans essential to a stable world and defended them despite the compromises at Versailles.

    Carrie Rand Herron, who bore two sons, died in 1914. Herron died at age 63 in Munich.
Sources There are three important collections of Herron papers: the George D. Herron Collection, 1891–1973 (bulk 1891–1903), in the Grinnell College Libraries, Grinnell; the George D. Herron Papers, 1905–1922, at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University, New York; and the George Davis Herron Papers, 1916–1927, at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, at Stanford University, Stanford, California. Three doctoral dissertations provide indispensable analysis: Herbert R. Dieterich, "Patterns of Dissent: The Reform Ideas and Activities of George D. Herron" (1957); Robert T. Handy, "George D. Herron and the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1890–1901" (1949); and Phyllis A. Nelson, "George D. Herron and the Socialist Clergy" (1953). Other significant works include Mitchell Pirie Briggs, George D. Herron and the European Settlement (1932); Robert T. Handy, "George D. Herron and the Kingdom Movement," Church History 19 (1950), 97–115; H. R. Dieterich, "Radical on Campus: Professor Herron at Iowa College, 1893– 1899," Annals of Iowa 37 (1964), 401–15; and Robert M. Crunden, "George D. Herron in the 1890s: A New Frame of Reference for the Study of the Progressive Era," Annals of Iowa 42 (1973), 81–113.
Contributor: Jacob H. Dorn