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The Religious Affiliation of Famed Photographer and Photojournalist
Margaret Bourke-White


Pioneering photographer and photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White was born in 1906 in the Bronx, New York. She grew up in Bound Brook, New Jersey.

Margaret Bourke-White's parents were converts to and devout adherents of Ethical Culture, which biographer Goldberg referred to as "the newest religion in America." It had been founded in 1876, thirty years prior to Margaret Bourke-White's birth. The marriage ceremony of Margaret Bourke-White's parents was, in fact, performed by Feliz Adler, the religious leader who was the founder of Ethical Culture. [Source: Vicki Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography, Harper & Row, Publishing: New York (1986), pages 4-5.]

Ethical Culture, the religion that Margaret Bourke-White grew up in, was an officially atheistic religion. The importance of virginity prior to marriage and celibacy even within marriage were key teachings of the religion. Prior to their marriage, Margaret Bourke-White's father introduced Ethical Culture to his fiance. They were both members of the Society of Ethical Culture of New York, and they agreed prior to getting married that they would live by the religion's teaching that they completely abstain from sex, except for purpose of producing a child. They had three children during the early years of their marriage, and they lived by Ethical Culture's intramarital celibacy rule for many years. But eventually they gave in to the temptation to have intimate relations with each other. Margaret Bourke-White's father took careful notes recording the dates and circumstances of each time he made love to his wife. [Source: Goldberg, pages 6-7.]

From: Emily Keller, Margaret Bourke-White: A Photographer's Life, Lerner Publication Company: Minneapolis, Minnesota (1996), pages 8-9:

Margaret Bourke-White's mother, Minnie White, had been born to English-Irish Protestant parents and Margaret's father, Joseph White, to Polish Jewish parents. Before their marriage, Minnie and Joseph had left their religions for a faith called Ethical Culture. In keeping with their religious philosophy, the Whites decided to create a mentally stimulating and moral home in which to raise their children.
Margaret Bourke-White's father Joseph White was the son of Polish Jews. He had been raised in a devout Orthodox Jewish family. Margaret Bourke-White's mother, Minnie, was the daughter of an Irish ship's carpenter and an English cook. Joseph and Minnie had both rejected the religions they grew up in prior to getting married. They were not married in a synagogue or a church, but were married by an "atheist minister." [Source: Catherine A. Welch, Margaret Bourke-White: Racing with a Dream, Carolrhoda Books, Inc.: Minneapolis, Minnesota (1998), page 8.]

As a young woman Margaret Bourke-White struggled with feelings of not belonging and with "the secret of the fact that her father was Jewish." Traditional religion "was not a big part of the White household," but Margaret Bourke-White knew of her Christian heritage (on her mother's side) and she sometimes went to church. Margaret Bourke-White's mother did not like Jews and her father (who was ethnically Jewish and had been raised as an Orthodox Jew) did not think of himself as a Jew. [Source: Welch, page 21.]

Margaret Bourke-White's Joseph White, a follower of the Ethical Culture religious movement, had introduced Minnie (his fiance, who would become Margaret Bourke-White's mother) to this "way of thinking" prior to their marriage. [Source: Welch, page 99.]

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Webpage created 2 September 2005. Last modified 2 September 2005.
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