Fifield, Rev. L. Wendell (1891-1964)

  • By Louis Fiset
  • Posted 4/07/2006
  • Essay 7725
The Rev. Dr. L. (Lawrence) Wendell Fifield was pastor of Seattle's Plymouth Congregational Church at 4th Avenue and University Street from 1927 to 1941. He was a leader among Seattle's ministry and widely known for his active role in civic affairs throughout the Pacific Northwest. His sermons were broadcast on local radio, and attendance at his weekly public events averaged about a thousand. He headed the American Red Cross war emergency drive, which netted $100,000, and served on the mayor's Committee of Seven, charged with handling the problems of servicemen on leave in the city. In recognition of these contributions, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Reverend Fifield First Citizen of 1940.

Born in Benton Harbor, Michigan in 1891, Fifield graduated from Oberlin College in 1913 and from Chicago Theological Seminary in 1917. He received his Doctor of Divinity degree from Yankton College and his Litt. D. (Doctor of Letters) degree from Whitman College. As his first pastoral assignment, Reverend Fifield served as minister of the First Congregational Church of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for 10 years. He was also professor of Biblical literature and public speaking at Yankton College in Yankton, South Dakota.

A Popular Orator

Reverend Fifield arrived in Seattle in 1927 and gave his first sermon at Plymouth Congregational Church on September 11, in the building that was erected in 1911 and stood until the mid-1960s. He served parishioners and the Seattle community for the next 14 years.

His early training in public speaking served him well throughout his career. He was a skilled orator and employed his talent by speaking on contemporary domestic and international affairs both from the pulpit and in community forums. He was in great demand as a lecturer, which extended his visibility throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition, his popular weekly sermons were broadcast on KIRO radio.

At least one series of his sermons commenting on world events in 1938 was collected and published locally in pamphlet form under the title World Trends and Christian Ideals. On Sunday evenings he held an International Forum, which regularly drew audiences of a thousand people. On Wednesday evenings he gave book reviews at the church to large public audiences. Notable among his choices were Lewis Mumford's The Culture of Cities and Hall Caine's controversial Life of Christ.

In 1940 the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors honored him by naming him First Citizen of that year in recognition of his leadership in the church, whose membership had reached 2,000. The award noted that "Dr. Fifield's contribution to the cultural and educational program of the church is stupendous in scope" (The Seattle Times, December 15, 1940).

The Years After Seattle

In May 1941 he accepted the call to Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, in Brooklyn, New York. This was arguably the most famous Congregational pulpit in the country, once occupied by Henry Ward Beecher. From this rostrum the abolitionist delivered his denunciations of slavery during the Civil War era.

The oldest Congregational church in the borough, at the time of Fifield's ascendancy it had an active membership of 1,000. The former Seattle minister served the Brooklyn church from 1941 to 1955. Throughout this tenure Fifield continued to speak out on contemporary affairs, including the growing menace of communism and its "fellow travelers" who were "advancing a materialistic philosophy and defeating a spiritual philosophy."

In 1955 Fifield, now 64, left the rigors of the Brooklyn pulpit for a life in semi-retirement. He and his wife, June, moved to Claremont, California, where he became part-time associate of his brother, the Rev. Dr. James W. Fifield Jr., minister of the First Congregational Church, Los Angeles. He was living in retirement at nearby Pomona when he passed away, on July 22, 1964.

Fifield's professional life in the pulpit and in the community is exemplified by the statement he made in acceptance of the 1940 First Citizen Award at a time when the nation was moving toward war: "It is clear that the hope of the United States and of democracy lies in recognition of spiritual values. The first defense of democracy in America is not military or economic, but moral and spiritual."

Sources: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 15, 1940, p. 11; The Seattle Times,, December 15, 1940, Ibid., January 7, 1940; Ibid., July 23, 1964, p. 39; Seattle Life, January 1941, p. 35; Time, June 30, 1941, p. 62; The New York Times, May 21, 1941, p. 46; Ibid., May 26, 1941, p. 22; Ibid., May 24, 1948, p. 13; Ibid., October 25, 1948, p. 26; Ibid., October 11, 1954, p. 30; Ibid., April 10, 1955, p. 65.

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