Preston Bradley was a well known mover and shaker in Chicago, serving as a member of the Chicago Public Library Board for 50 years and as its president for 25. He marched with Jane Addams for woman’s suffrage and with Martin Luther King for civil rights. Both from his pulpit and in his nationally syndicated radio broadcasts he fought for equality and opposed the Ku Klux Klan at the height of its power in the 1920s, and as a result of death threats, received police protection from the Mayor’s office.
He was one of the first pastors to preach to a national radio audience, and holds the record for the longest continuously running religious radio broadcast – some 50-plus years.
On the national scene, he was a confidant of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was appointed by FDR to the commission which formed the United Nations.
Internationally, he spent many summers touring and speaking in cities across Europe.
His congregation, The Peoples Church, dates from 1880. It was started by another outspoken minister, the Rev. Hiram Washington Thomas, a Civil War officer, active in an ecumenical peace group, and one of a handful of progressive clergy in Chicago who organized the first Parliament of World Religions.
Bradley was raised in a fundamentalist atmosphere in a Presbyterian church in rural Michigan, was ordained in the Presbyterian church, and posted to a small town in rural western Illinois. From his pulpit one day, he expressed his opinion that he could not accept the then Presbyterian doctrine that unbaptized infants were consigned to hell. A conservative parishioner reported this to the Chicago Presbytery, and he was called on the carpet. Threatened with a heresy trial if he did not renounce his statement, he resigned from the Presbytery.
He then enrolled for graduate study in Moody Bible Seminary, where he expected to find a more liberal atmosphere. He was wrong. One evening a school official spotted him coming out of a movie theater smoking his pipe, and he was expelled – for attending a movie theater and smoking a pipe. After this, Bradley never again accepted a call from a denominational church.
In 1912 when Bradley resigned from the Presbyterian Church, he had been serving a congregation as student minister, and took a number of his parishioners with him to start a new church they called “The Peoples Progressive Church of Chicago.” After only a month or so the remnants of Rev. Thomas’s (who had died in 1909) Peoples Church of Chicago recognized a kindred spirit and proposed that the two churches join together. Peoples Church of Chicago was established as a non-denominational, independent, free church, which under Bradley’s leadership in the 1920s joined the American Unitarian Association. Enrollment grew to some 4,000 members, and his radio audience grew to an estimated 5 million listeners a week, according to a 1957 publication. He built this building, with its grand sanctuary holding 1,763 people.
From the beginning, Dr. Bradley’s orientation was to spiritual healing and to social justice. He surrounded himself in controversy, taking on issues of the day, beginning with freedom of speech.
Peoples Church remained a Unitarian, and later a Unitarian Universalist, church after the merger of those two denominations. It was not until after he retired, at which time Peoples was in dire financial straits, that the church applied for membership and was accepted into the United Church of Christ as a dually affiliated church – both UUA and UCC – as it remains to this day.