Most of what I know of Lewis Dunnington’s life comes from personal contact with him during family vacations when I was a child, and family lore passed on by my grandmother Helen French Dunnington. This was supplemented by Lew’s unpublished autobiography, “The Light That Did Not Fail,” 80 of his recorded radio sermons, photos and news clippings from his scrapbooks, and information gleaned from along with other print and web sources.

Growing Up

Lew’s family 1892, Paw Paw, MI. L-R Lew, John “Canada Jack” Dunnington, Anna Belle (upper), Edith Mae (standing front), Emily Steffee Dunnington (Thomas Walter not pictured)

Lew was born on July 8, 1890 in Decatur, Michigan, the third of four surviving children. Economics was always a hard part of his family life. His father was listed as a painter in the 1900 census and a “shaker” in a stove factory in 1910 1, but he worked away from home at least part of Lew’s childhood.

Lew kept a copy of a letter he wrote to his father when he was ten telling him he would “kick his hindquarters” if his dad didn’t send the family some money for Christmas. 2

Lew’s mother and siblings were always looking out for odd jobs to bring in the money they needed to survive.

His childhood was mostly spent in South Haven, Michigan until the family moved to Kalamazoo for Lew to attend high school and eventually college.

Lew did well in high school but he needed to earn money before he could enter college. He did this by selling the home reference Volume Library door to door. In a theme repeated throughout his life, he recounted how his father said he would never be successful while his mother encouraged him in the endeavor. After initially failing to sell any books, Lew also doubted himself and wrote to the president of the company asking for new territory. The man wrote back that the problem lay in Lew’s timidity. He needed to call on his Christian faith and “plaster Bay City with books.” 3

Lew signed a contract with the firm for a year and wound up organizing young men to sell the book as far south as Texas, as far east as Delaware and throughout the Midwest. When he ran out of money and sales prospects in Lexington, Kentucky, he needed to get to Evansville, Indiana for an advance on his commissions. He wrote in his autobiography about three days “riding the rods” on freight trains and the attendant rough treatment he received as a “hobo.” 4

As hard as he had it growing up, Lew always celebrated the “indomitable will to succeed under the whiplash of economic necessity” and wedded that deeply to his Christian faith.

Call to the Ministry

The deep Christian faith and love in Lew’s life can be tied directly to his mother who was a devout Free Methodist. She wanted Lew to go into the ministry, but as much as he loved his mother, he had a deep resistance to the unquestioning dogma and the performance element of Free Methodist services.

Lew’s shyness and fear of speaking in public also contributed to his resistance to embracing the ministry.

At 16, Lew wrote about sitting down next to his mother as she read her nightly Bible verses when he heard a commanding voice say, “Preach the gospel.” When she laid down her Bible and went to bed, he realized she hadn’t heard the voice. 5

Lew mentally answered that he felt unfit to be a preacher and asked for a further sign. He then opened his mother’s Bible at random to 1 Corinthians verse 9:16. The first words he read were “Preach the gospel.”

He had a second “calling” in Chicago just before Christmas in 1916. He was already serving as a pastor at the McKinley Park Methodist church while he was completing his master’s degree in history at the University of Chicago when his advisor told him that he could continue his PhD by joining the history faculty at a normal school in Kansas.

The idea was attractive to Lew and he rationalized that he could continue his studies and do ministerial work part-time on the weekends. Unable to sleep, he took a walk in Jackson Park where he met a down-at-the heels old man asking for directions to a factory where he had a job. The man had no money for a tram or food until he got the job so Lew gave him two of the last four dollars he had in the world.

As he watched the man disappear into the night, the skies opened for him with “indescribable warmth and light of Heaven.” This confirmed Lew’s conviction to devote his whole life to the ministry which, when properly conceived, meant helping those who are in trouble. 6

Career in the Church

Helen French Dunnington (late 1930’s)

When WWI broke out, Lew did his service with the YMCA as I described in the “Russia” tab on this site. On his return to the States in 1919, he entered the Boston University School of Theology where he graduated in 1921 with an STB degree – a graduate-level academic degree in theology.

While he was studying in Boston, Lew also served as a substitute pastor at the Congregational Church in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. This is where he met Helen French in 1919. They married in 1922.

In 1921, he received his first appointment as associate pastor of the Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he stayed for four years. This was followed by positions at Prospect Park Church in Duluth, Minnesota from 1925 to 1928, and then the Endion Methodist Church, also in Duluth, where he served as pastor for 14 years.

During their time in Duluth, Lew and Helen had four boys: James, Jon, Thomas, and Theodore. A fifth son, Richard, was born in 1931 but died within a few weeks of childhood disease.

It was also in Duluth that Lew found his voice as a preacher. He used his Biblical scholarship to debunk a lot of the theological dogma that defied rational thinking and concentrated on the love and understanding of Jesus to guide people’s spiritual lives.

In 1937, Lew was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity by Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota and from that date on referred to himself as “Dr. Dunnington.” 7

His big revelation in Duluth was the idea of 25 affirmative “silent communion” cards, each with a different message of faith and encouragement. He distributed one new card to the congregation each week, supported by that Sunday’s sermon, with the idea that people would then review the cards several times a day.

The popularity of these cards led to national articles in the religous press and eventually a book contract with Methodist publishing house Abingdon-Cokesbury in 1941. Handles of Power compiled 25 of his sermons with the accompanying silent communion cards. The book was a huge success and went through 13 printings.  8

On to Iowa City

Iowa City Parsonage kitchen – Jon, Ted, Tom, Jim (l-r), Helen, Lew (seated)

The success of Handles of Power led to Lew’s appointment as pastor of the First Methodist Church in Iowa City, Iowa, located on Jefferson Street abutting the University of Iowa. From 1942 until his retirement in 1962 he grew average attendance from 350 members to 2,000 with two identical services each week. 9

One of Lew’s greatest joys was preaching to and counseling with the thousands of students who attended the university over these years. He continued to focus on religious thought that could be embraced by the rational mind while putting Bible stories in their historical context. He taught that love inspired by Christ’s example leads to “unbreakable goodwill” that will guide one through any difficulty.

Lew was deeply involved in the community during his time at Iowa City with sermons referring to college teams and coaches as well as national concerns. His publishing contract was picked up by Macmillan Publishers through 1956 bringing his total of spiritual self-help books to seven.

Lew’s Iowa retirement album contains letters from judges, school superintendents, Kiwanis chairmen and hundreds of congregants who remembered his sermons, his individual counseling, and all his bedside/living room visits during troubled times.

Man of the World

For someone born poor in small-town Michigan at the end of the 19th century, Lew had an intense personal engagement with the rest of the world. Besides the adventures I’ve already described, Lew returned to Europe, Russia, and the Holy Land nine more times in his life. There were several personal trips and several tours that he led under the auspices of Duluth and Iowa City travel agencies.

The main theme of his message was always inclusion, forgiveness, and disregard for barriers to compassion like racial, ethnic, or national prejudice.

His first book included an episode in Duluth when the internationally renowned Black tenor Roland Hayes came to give a concert in 1935. When Lew and another minister learned that he had been denied access to the dining room in his own hotel, they visited him in order to apologize.

Lew wrote that Hayes’ manifestation of Christian spirit gave him more insight into personal power than any man he had ever met. Hayes’ ability to put himself aside and become a wide-open channel for God’s truth and power was featured in many of Lew’s sermons and writings for the rest of his life. 10

Letter to Lew from Clarence Darrow, Feb 10, 1933 (?)

In 1932, Lew was engaged to debate Clarence Darrow in the Duluth armory on the question, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” Darrow had a national reputation for facing William Jennings Bryan in the “Scopes Monkey Trial” testing whether it was legal to teach evolution in Tennessee public schools.

Darrow questioned why God would have stopped the sun in the sky so that Joshua could more efficiently slaughter his enemies and then observed that Eve should not be held responsible for original sin since she was only three days old at the time.

Lew complimented Darrow’s scholarship and responded that the Bible was the progressive revelation of God through records that span the centuries. He maintained that scriptural authority rests not in the church or the literal interpretation of the Bible, but in the human heart

Mr. Darrow responded, “Hell, man, I can’t fight you because I believe just like you do. If I lived here I’d attend your church.” 11

Lew gave Mr. Darrow a tour up the north shore of Lake Superior the next day and the two became warm friends. Lew kept a letter from Darrow regretting his inability to join Lew on his upcoming trip to Russia and repeating his warm regards. 12

In 1959, Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the University of Iowa campus to make a speech. Lew and representatives of the UI School of religion met with him in support. 13

During his time in Iowa City, Lew also opened the parsonage to international students from Africa and Asia needing a place to live.

Professor Robert Michaelson (left), Rev. Dunnington and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during King’s address “The Future of Race Relations in America,” – November 1959

Spirituality and Spiritualism

Lew in Iowa City, 1950’s

Ever since Lew’s dramatic call to the ministry, the boundaries between the temporal world and the spiritual world had become porous to him.

In 1956, Lew joined Marcus Bach, a well-known professor of religion at the University of Iowa, and a dozen other ministers at the Hyde Park Methodist Church in Chicago in 1956 to help start the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship. Their goal was to provide church support for American psychic Arthur Ford’s effort to contact the deceased on “the other side.” 14

Ford halted his presentation at this meeting to say that he was in the presence of a friendly man who asked if Lew Dunnington remembered the private conversation he had had with Charley Pace 20 years earlier.

Lew identified himself, acknowledged the conversation, and expressed his amazement that Ford could know about this conversation since he had no prior contact with either Lew or Pace who had since died.

Marcus Bach brought Ford to Iowa City annually for several years to address his religion students. During this time, Lew had Ford address his Methodist congregation at a Sunday evening meeting where he would communicate directly with those who had passed on.

Lew also had a number of private sessions with Ford. In particular, he was comforted by the spirit of his mother who told him through Ford’s medium “Feltcher” that all their arguments about Christian dogma would be behind them when he “came over.”

Lew firmly believed in the reincarnation of the soul. He was enthusiastic about the work of “Sleeping Prophet” Edgar Cayce and met several times with Cayce’s son Hugh who was carrying on his work.

In a poignant coda to Lew’s career, he met with a psychic on Orcas Island, Washington in 1968 who assured him that his unpublished autobiography would be snapped up by a publisher and sell many copies.


When Lew hit the mandatory retirement age for Methodist ministers in 1962, he and his wife Helen moved to Mercer Island, Washington to be near the family of their second son Jon.

He immediately helped organize a new Methodist church on Mercer Island until he had a heart attack in 1966 which precipitated his second retirement.

When he recovered from his heart attack, he began working on his autobiography which he completed shortly before his death in 1972, at 81, of continued heart problems.

In his life he had personally witnessed world history on two continents. He had brought faith and hope to thousands through his scholarship, his contagious energy, and “unbreakable good will.” 15

1, Federal Census 1900, 1910
2 Original letter from Lewis Dunnington collection
3 “The Light That Did Not Fail,” Lewis Dunnington, unpublished p 38
4 “The Light That Did Not Fail,” p 41
5 “The Light That Did Not Fail,”p 2
6 “The Light That Did Not Fail,” p 8
7 Duluth Herald, June 6, 1937
8 “The Light That Did Not Fail,” p 93
9 First Methodist Church of Iowa City staff retirement album
10 “The Light That Did Not Fail,” p. 76
11 “The Light That Did Not Fail,” P 74
12 Original letter from Lewis Dunnington Collection
13 IowaNow ( ”Old Gold: MLK’s campus lecture mare than 50 years ago remains relevant”
14 – International Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship
15 The Light That Did Not Fail, p. 143