Turner, the Rev. Dr. Dale (1917-2006)

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 1/04/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7134
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The Rev. Dr. Dale Turner served 24 years (1958-1982) as senior minister of University Congregational Church in Seattle. He espoused a liberal Christian doctrine, wrote a religion column for The Seattle Times for 21 years, and was a popular luncheon and commencement speaker. Turner began his religious life as a fundamentalist, believing in the Bible's inerrancy, but adopted a more liberal theology while attending Yale Divinity School. He authored four books and served on the boards of several social-service organizations. He received numerous awards including Seattle University's Doctor Humanis Causa in 1983. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named the Rev. Dr. Dale Turner First Citizen of 1982.

Midwest Childhood

Dale Turner was born on November 22, 1917, in Glen Dale, West Virginia, a small town on the Ohio border, to Charles and Anna Turner, and he was one of four children. Charles and Anna both came from families with roots deep in West Virginia. When Dale was still an infant, the family moved to Akron, Ohio, where Charles Turner found work at the B. F. Goodrich tire plant.

Anna was a Protestant and Charles a Roman Catholic, but they were non-churchgoers and Dale had no early exposure to organized religion. However, "they were fine people," Dale Turner said. It was a close family and a typical Midwestern upbringing for Dale. He was a Boy Scout and enjoyed athletics, playing for the high school basketball and football teams.

In his senior year, when he was 18, an evangelist came to town and showed up at the gym to "shoot baskets with the team," he recalled. "He was a pretty good ball player and I was attracted to him." Turner attended a couple of the fundamentalist preacher's meetings and was converted. "I had a religious experience," he said.

Twentieth Century Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism, as we know it today, had been gaining momentum around the world since the turn of the twentieth century, in Judaism and Islam as well as Christianity. According to Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God, it was "a reaction against the scientific and secular culture that first appeared in the West, but has since taken root in other parts of the world."Fundamentalists had "cast aside many of the painfully acquired insights of liberal culture." They "fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices from the past" (Armstrong, xi).

Armstrong compares the significance of the international rise of fundamentalism to the first Axial Age (600-400 bce), a period that included the appearance of the Vedic Upanishads; Buddha (566 - ca. 480 bce); Hellenic Greece; reputed founder of Taoism Lao Tzu (flourished sixth century bce); and Persian religious leader Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) (ca. 628 - ca. 551 bce). In the United States, fundamentalists "identified with a literal interpretation of Scripture and the acceptance of certain core doctrines" (Armstrong, xi).

The Scopes Trial

The Scopes trial in 1925 rocked the fundamentalist world, enthralled the country, and became a seminal event in American history. After a sensational trial, with fundamentalism on trial as much as the defendant, Dayton, Tennessee, biology teacher John T. Scopes was found guilty in July 1925 of teaching Darwinism, a theory contrary to the biblical account of creation. A Tennessee statute passed the previous March had mandated only the biblical view. 

The trial spawned a nationwide media circus, with the fundamentalists painted as clowns. It dampened enthusiasm for similar legislation in other states, and, "after the Scopes trial Protestant fundamentalists retreated from the public arena and withdrew to their own churches and colleges" (Armstrong, p. 214). By 1936, Dale Turner was among them. "I became a rabid proponent, never without my Bible" (Levine).

The young Turner had dreamed of being football coach and he earned a football scholarship to West Virginia Wesleyan College, a United Methodist school at Buckhannon, West Virginia. The first in his family to attend an institution of higher learning, he had to hitchhike to get there, and supported himself doing janitorial work at the school church.

During his four years at Wesleyan, Turner's "greatest interest other than his faith was playing football; academics was third" (Levine).

Two Roads Diverge

A friend in the athletic department had helped Turner obtain a scholarship for a master's degree in physical education at Columbia University, a major step toward his coaching dream. But he also had an opportunity for a scholarship at Yale Divinity School to become a minister and, a few weeks before graduation, after considerable internal debate, that was the course he chose.

His Wesleyan classmates were stunned by his decision to attend unabashedly liberal Yale. "It was a wake," Turner recalled."Those intellectuals will destroy your faith," they said." At Yale he found that it was "difficult at first, wrestling with this new, more enlightened interpretation, but I came to see that they had more to say than the fundamentalists. ... At the end of my seminary training, I was born again, in the real sense of the word, liberated from that impossible theology into the wider world" (Levine).

Turner said later: "Fundamentalism doesn't face honestly some of the real crucial questions. In many ways it's non-Christian."

A Disciple

Turner's mentor and inspiration in those years was the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), a Union Theological Seminary professor, Baptist preacher, and pastor of the liberal Riverside Church in New York. "I became a disciple," he said. Fosdick had a penchant for aphorisms -- "A person wrapped up in himself makes a small package" -- one that Turner would enthusiastically embrace.

He graduated in 1943 and was ordained in Lansing, Michigan, where he was Christian education director for the Congregational Church and an assistant coach for the high school football team.

The church organist and choir director was Leone Schavey Butters (1917-2011), described as "a brilliant woman" (Levine). Dale Turner became close friends with Leone and her husband, Tom Butters, an Air Force lieutenant. Tom Butters died in a mission over Germany in 1945 and Dale and Leone married in 1948. Turner adopted the Shaveys' 6-year-old son, Greg, who later attended Yale Divinity School as well, and became a minister in Paris, France. Three other children were born: Charles, in 1949, Robert, in 1952, and Drew, in 1954.

Moving On

After three years at Lansing, Turner transferred to a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he spent two years as associate minister and backfield coach for the local junior college team. "I had no trouble with that," he recalled. "I enjoyed sports."

In 1948, the day Dale and Leone married, he became minister of the Congregational Church in Lawrence, Kansas, the oldest in the state, and plunged into the college community at the University of Kansas. In addition to his pastoral duties, he served as professor of religion at the University of Kansas and as chaplain of the football team. In 1951, three years after his arrival, the Chamber of Commerce honored him with its "Man of the Year" award.

He somehow found time to earn a doctor of divinity degree from West Virginia Wesleyan in 1955.

Questionable Opportunity

In 1958, University Congregational Church in Seattle was seeking a senior minister. By chance, the son of a Turner parishioner, George Cady, head of the University of Washington chemistry department, was visiting family in Lawrence and heard Turner preach. Cady suggested Turner to the Seattle church's search committee. He was invited for an interview, but decided he wasn't interested. He loved Lawrence and his University of Kansas flock and had trepidations about moving from a Bible Belt university town to the University of Washington, where "they couldn't even say a silent prayer." But Turner agreed to a second visit and finally acquiesced. "It was one of best decisions of my life," he recalled.

Turner was up to the challenge. He continued his full-court-press schedule, pastoring University Congregational, visiting hospitals and homes, diligently answering the mail, packing the rest of his schedule with speeches, and serving on a wide range of committees.

University Congregational is a United Church of Christ parish, on the liberal end of theological spectrum. "Open-minded," Turner said. "I became a member of this denomination because they permitted you to have different ideas. There is unity of spirit without uniformity of conclusion."

Parishioners Lost, Gained

"Sometimes parishioners would leave because of what I believed," Turner said. But parishioners also flocked to hear his liberal views on peace, dissent, race, homosexuality, and the human condition in general. He boosted membership to 2,200, big by the standards of mostly secular Seattle. "It was the largest church of our denomination in the state," Turner said.

His creed: "Somewhere between intransigent dogma on the one hand and skepticism on the other is another way: open-minded uncertainty" (www.drdaleturner.com).

In 1970, Ray Ruppert reflected in The Seattle Times magazine, "Dr. Turner typifies the nice-guy minister at a time when many clergymen are seeking recognition and fulfillment through an angry stance, which may reflect the wrath of God or merely personal insecurity" (November 15, 1970).

An Affinity for Students

He had a particular affinity for students at the University of Washington, as he had in Kansas, visiting fraternities and sororities, building student membership at the church. But he definitely wasn't in Kansas anymore. The University of Washington in the late 1960s and 1970s was awash in dissent, with marches, demonstrations, and sit-ins protesting the Vietnam War, and other issues. Turner marched too.

"I was involved. Very much so," he recalled. "They were skeptical kids and I tried to be as honest as I could. They'd have to judge whether I was dependable or not."

Turner said he liked their open questioning. "In some sense, I find a deeper longing for what life is all about" (Ruppert).

But University Congregational wasn't all peace symbols and tie-dye. Among the more devoted parishioners was John T. Reid (1873-1960), publisher of the University District Herald, a pro-development Republican and vociferous critic of U District hippies and their anti-war disturbances. He was for many years superintendent of the Sunday school.

"He was a wonderfully kind and thoughtful man ... one of the best people we ever had in the church. We were very close friends," Turner said.  "We discussed our differences, lots of times. He'd laugh and just say, "We're all different" (Chesley interview with Rev. Dale Turner, July 9, 2004). After John Reid's death, Turner remained a close friend of his son Wally Reid.

Controversial Stands

Turner claimed to be "shy," but spoke out fearlessly in support of his beliefs. In 1977, when singer Anita Bryant (b. 1940) launched a much-publicized campaign against gay rights in Dade County, Florida, Turner said from the pulpit: "I think without question, Anita Bryant is a force for evil. ... She has inflamed national prejudices, fostered fear and hatred and distorted the Scriptures to her own ends" (Ruppert, The Seattle Times).

Turner retired in December 1982, at age 65, after a 24-year tenure at University Congregational Church. But he was far from finished with ministering. In March 1983, he began writing a weekly religion column for The Seattle Times, occasionally triggering controversy, but generally offering reminders of the proper Christian life. For example in August 2004 he wrote "Don't let time slip by without nurturing yourself and others" (August 7) and "Education is ongoing, and God's universe is our classroom" (August 28). "I'll never run out of material," he said.

He published four books: Grateful Living, Different Seasons, Another Way: Open Minded Faithfulness, and Free To Be. And he gained a reputation as an epigramist. "When a little bird tells us something," he once wrote, "make sure it isn't a cuckoo" (Sanger, Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

Turner served on the board of the Metropolitan YMCA, Goodwill Industries, and Neighborhood House. He was an early leader of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and served on the advisory board of Multifaith Works, Seattle. He received numerous awards, including Seattle-King County Association of Realtors Citizen of the Year in 1982 and Seattle University's Doctor Humanis Causa in 1983.

The Rev. Dr. Dale Turner died of natural causes on June 5, 2006, at his Lake Forest Park home. His wife of 58 years, Leone Turner, was at his side. Rev. Turner was survived by his sons Greg, Chuck, and Drew Turner, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. His son Robert, a graphic artist, had died in 1994.


Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000); Rabbi Raphael Levine, Profiles in Service (Seattle: Evergreen Publishing, 1985), 207-209; "Inspiration for Engaged Living," Dr. Dale Turner website accessed October 2004 (www.drdaleturner.com); Ray Ruppert, "Minister Attacks Anti-Gay Campaign," The Seattle Times, October 22, 1977, p. A-9; Ruppert, "University Congregational's Dr. Turner: An Optimist in a Gloomy World," The Seattle Times Magazine, November 15, 1970, p. 9; S. L. Sanger, "25 Years of Change in Seattle," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 26, 1983, p. C-3; Frank Chesley interview with Dale Turner, July 9, 2004, and September 21, 2004; "Leone Annette Turner," The Seattle Times, June 26, 2011, available at Legacy.com website accessed November 20, 2015 (http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/seattletimes/obituary.aspx?n=leone-annette-turner&pid=152198710).
Note: This essay was corrected and updated on June 6, 2006, and on November 20, 2015.

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