Leon Milton Birkhead (1885-1954) Papers (KC0280)
Leon Birkhead was born on a farm outside Winfield, Missouri, fifty miles northwest of St. Louis. His first job was in a St. Louis shoe factory, for which he later became a salesman. When, in 1904, he had saved enough money, he began his studies at McKendree College, a small Methodist institution in Lebanon, Illinois. He graduated with an A.B. degree in 1910, and was ordained a Methodist minister in 1911. Birkhead also did graduate work in theology and philosophy at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey, and Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York, but did not complete another degree.
Reverend Birkhead held pastorates at the Maple Avenue and Wagoner Memorial Methodist Episcopal Churches in St. Louis, and the Ewing Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Madison, Illinois. In 1913, he married Agnes Schiereck of St. Louis, who was the youngest Deputy Collector of the Internal Revenue Service -- the first woman to hold a position of that rank. They had one child, Kenneth. In 1914, Birkhead resigned from the Methodist Church and took a ministerial post at the First Unitarian Church in Wichita, Kansas. He remained there until 1917, when he came to Kansas City, Missouri, and began more than twenty years of service to All Souls Unitarian Church.
Reverend Birkhead was a popular, progressive figure in religious and civic affairs. He advocated women's suffrage, the use of advertising for churches, companionate marriage, and the teaching of evolution in schools. He and his wife were present at the Scopes trial in 1925, with Reverend Birkhead assisting Clarence Darrow with miscellaneous research tasks and Agnes Birkhead serving as defense stenographer. Birkhead served as technical advisor to his friend, Sinclair Lewis, during the writing of Elmer Gantry, the 1927 publication which caused great debate in religious circles.
In 1935, Birkhead traveled to Germany, where he became alarmed at the influence of Nazism there and in the United States. He resigned from All Souls in 1939 to begin the Friends of Democracy, an "anti-propaganda" organization whose purpose was to expose hate-based groups during World War II and the McCarthy Era. Birkhead moved the Friends of Democracy operation to New York City in 1939, and he died there in December of 1954.
The papers consist of a variety of materials documenting Reverend Birkhead's professional and public career. Much of the collection consists of printed materials from his churches, organizations of which he was a member, and his speaking engagements. A small amount of correspondence is also included. Records of All Souls Unitarian Church include postcards mailed to the congregation concerning upcoming sermon topics, guest speakers, and activities. There is also a log book with clipped advertisements and weekly attendance and offering figures. The Liberal Center was also a function of All Souls, and the collection contains some programs and youth newsletters concerning its activities. As head of the Friends of Democracy, Birkhead collected many publications from the groups against which he was fighting. The publications are anti-Communist, anti-Socialist, anti-Fascist, anti-Semitic, pro-McCarthy, and white supremacist in nature. Much printed material generated by the Friends of Democracy is also included. Some correspondence and ephemeral material related to Agnes Schiereck Birkhead and Kenneth Birkhead. 1900-1955.
4 cubic feet.
© WHMC-KC, University of Missouri
Friday, October 10, 2008
Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas City
(816) 235-1543 WHMCKC@umkc.edu