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The Religious Affiliation of
Henry Fonda
great American actor


Henry Fonda was raised in a devout Christian Science home. As a young adult, apparently during his college years, he drifted from activity in the Church of Christ, Scientist, although he did not renounce his faith. In his autobiography he recalls a time during his early acting career in New York City when he found solace and spiritual help in a Christian Science Reading Room. It was his first time in a Christian Science worship center in eight years.

Although his religious background clearly shaped his personality throughout his life, the degree to which Fonda retained specific Christian Science beliefs and practices is unclear. During adulthood he unhesitantly sought medical treatment from regular doctors and hospitals and apparently no longer used Christian Science practioners. At the time he wrote his autobiography with Howard Teichmann (published just a year before Fonda's death), Fonda claimed to be agnostic.

From: Henry Fonda as told to Howard Teichmann, Fonda: My Life, New American Library/Times Mirror: New York (1981), page 21:

Following the birth of her son [Henry Fonda], Herberta Fonda bore her husband two daughters, Harriet and Jayne.

"No one could have nicer sisters," Fonda says. "No sibling problems there."

"As a matter of fact," Fonda says, "my whole damn family was nice. I don't think I've imagined it. It's true. Maybe it has to do with being brought up as Christian Scientists. Half of my relatives were Readers or Practitioners in the church.

"If you got sick, you sent for Granny or Aunt Bess or Aunt Ethelyn, and they'd come and read Mary Baker Eddy to you and you'd get well. We steered clear of doctors."

From Katharine Whittemore's review of Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir, by Henry Fonda's son Peter Fonda (review published in Salon, 6 April 1998; URL: http://dir.salon.com/books/sneaks/1998/04/06sneaks.html):
Peter and Jane Fonda's mother... commits suicide when Peter is 10. The boy wanted his father to be shining and fine like Tom Joad or "Wyatt Earp riding into town," but no. Dad's off-screen psyche is stunted, Peter theorizes, by his Christian Scientist background. It "ascribed sickness to some inner failing or sin," and "sickness," it seems, encompasses just about anything deemed unmanly. If Peter acts afraid, in other words, Henry acts disgusted.

Fonda had drifted from activity in the Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science) by the time he was living in New York as a struggling actor and married for the first time. He married non-Christian Scientist, with a non-church wedding. From: Fonda: My Life, page 62:

At twelve o'clock on Christmas Day 1931, with Kent Smith as the best man and Bretaigne Windust playing the little upright piano, in the dining room a sunny Margaret Sullavan and an elated Henry Fonda were joined in holy matrimony at the Kernan Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland.
Fonda: My Life, pages 66-67:
On a gray day in May 1932 a cruel wind howled its way in through the window frame of his hotel room and a constant rain beat a tatoo on the glass panes. Henry Fonday, needing to escape the wretchedness he felt within himself, left the room and walked east on Fortieth Street. By the time he reached Madison Avenue his shoes squished with rainwater that flooded the gutters of the New York streets. Turning, he started uptown. He had no idea where his soaking shes would take him.

"My thinking was scrambled when [Margaret] Sullivan and I separated," he says. "Something happened to me that had never happend before. I couldn't cope. It was heartbreak time and I thought it was the end of the world.

"I stopped when I found myself facing a Christian Science Reading Room. My God! It had been eight years. There had never been any renunciation of religion on my part, but like so many people, it was a gradual fading away.

"it didn't take me long to decide what to do. I was desperate. I opened the door and went in. A man was sitting behind a desk."

"May I help you?" the man asked.

Fonda didn't even glance about to see if anyone was present. He simply spilled out all of his agony and the story of the conflict that had gone on between Sullavan and himself and how it had climaxed in their separation.

"I don't know what it was," Fonda says. "I must have had faith that day. I don't even know who the man was, but he helped me to leave my pain in that little reading room. When I went out, I was Henry Fonda again. An unemployed actor but a man."

About Henry Fonda's ancestors, from: Fonda: My Life, page 20:
Early records show the family [Henry Fonda's ancestors] ensconced in northern Italy in the sixteenth century where they fought on the side of the Reformation [presumably meaning the Protestant Reformation], fled to Holland, intermarried with Dutch burghers' daughters, picked up the first names of the Low Countries, but retained the Italiante Fonda. Before Pieter Stuyvesant surrendered Nieuw Amsterdam to the English the Fondas, instead of settling in Manhattan, canoed up the Hudson River to the Indian village of Caughawaga. Within a few generations, the Mohawks and the Iroquois were butchered or fled and the town became known to mapmakers as Fonda, New York.
About Shirlee Adams [also known as: Shirlee Adams; Shirley Fonda; Shirlee Fonda], Henry Fonda's fifth wife, who was married to him from 1965 until his death in 1982. From: Fonda: My Life, page 281:
Like [Henry] Fonda, Shirlee Adams came from the Midwest, Aurora, Illinois, an hour's drive from Chicago. She's been a religious girl, a faithful churchgoer. She didn't believe in smoking, liquor, coffee, tea, dancing, moves. She was allowed to swim in the summer, skate in the winter, and bowl in between. Everything else, they taught her, was a sin. She went from the Presbyterian Church to the Baptist Church to the Lutheran Church to the Church of God. The reason for these denominational changes was that at the age of four, Shirlee Adams was placed in the Mary A. Goddard Juvenile Home. "An orphanage is not the easiest place to spend a childhood," she said, but it was there that Shirlee became a "belonger." She filled the sugar bowls on the tables in the dining room, she went to Sunday School, attended the Young People's Meetings, and sang in the choir.
From: Fonda: My Life, page 282:
She [Shirlee Fonda] still doesn't smoke, but that is because she doesn't like the smell of tobacco. She doesn't drink because she is allergic to alcohol, and it's no contest between a cocktail and a migraine headache.

Henry Fonda claims to be an agnostic. Not an atheist but a doubter. He smoked, he drank, he danced, but there was a quality in Shirlee Adams's [very religious, Midwestern] background that was similar to his. They shared the same elements of honesty, the same sense of values. Mutual attraction and respect began their relationship.

Early records show the family [Henry Fonda's ancestors] ensconced in northern Italy in the sixteenth century where they fought on the side of the Reformation [presumably meaning the Protestant Reformation], fled to Holland, intermarried with Dutch burghers' daughters, picked up the first names of the Low Countries, but retained the Italiante Fonda. Before Pieter Stuyvesant surrendered Nieuw Amsterdam to the English the Fondas, instead of settling in Manhattan, canoed up the Hudson River to the Indian village of Caughawaga. Within a few generations, the Mohawks and the Iroquois were butchered or fled and the town became known to mapmakers as Fonda, New York.
Fonda: My Life, page 213:
On December 28, 1950, Dr. Everett Clinchy, president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, peformed the ceremony that united Susan Blanchard and Henry Fonda. The place was the Hammerstein home on East Sixty-third Street.
Henry Fonda's daughter -- Jane Fonda -- recalls the prayers they said for her brother Peter when he was seriously injured in a gun accident. From: Fonda: My Life, pages 214-215:
"Tony Abry, Pan's brother-in-law, and Reed Armstrong, her husband's nephew, had their grandfather's car and chauffeur," Peter disclosed, "and the chauffeur drove us over to the Abry estate near Katonah where there was a regular shooting range. One of the boys showed off an antique pistol that cocked when you broke it, just like a shotgun. The trigger laid up against the stem like a derringer. I put in the shell, and when I closed it, the whole fucking mechanism went around and discharged itself right into me.

"It went right into my belly, hit my rib cage, blew off a piece of my liver, tumbled through my stomach, just missed my abdominal aorta, slammed right through the center of my kidney, and made just a lump on the skin of my back right next to my spine.

"That chauffeur saved my life. I stumbled to the car, yelling that I'd been shot. And he didn't waste a word on me. He just shoveled me up and put me into the car, and drove like hell for the hospital in Ossining.

"Dr. Charles dark Sweet, bless his name, was the prison physician at Sing Sing. He had puncture-wound and bullet-wound expertise, and he walked into the hospital from a hunting trip just as they brought me in. That's where the luck comes in. While they were propping me, he scrubbed, and by the time

he was ready, I was waiting on the table in the operating room, and he did some kind of job sewing and patching and stitching."

Despite the skill of the surgeon's knife, Death beckoned Peter Fonda. The surgeon emerged from the operating room to tell the waiting Sophie and Jane that the boy's heart had stopped beating. They'd managed to start it again, but he was dying, and unfortunately, there was not much else they could do for him.

"I remember when he was dying, I remember hearing the doctor say, 'I don't know if he's going to pull through,' and I remember praying," Jane Fonda admitted. "That was the first time in my life I remember praying. 'Dear God,' I whispered, 'if you let him live, I'll never be mean to him again.' "

Henry Fonda arrived in his son's hospital room, well beyond midnight. All he saw was the narrow figure under the white sheet and the small, drained face with tubes coming out of his mouth and nostrils. There was nothing for the father to do but sit in a chair and watch his immobile child.

At three in the morning a compassionate nurse called him outside the boy's room and promised to telephone if any change occurred. It seemed better, she believed, for Fonda to have strength to face tomorrow and whatever it might bring.

Back in New York Henry Fonda caught a restless hour of sleep, and then made the return trip to Ossining. This routine continued for five days. On the sixth the doctors pronounced Peter had passed the crisis. Within a week he was considered in stable condition. Within another week he was out of danger and on the road back to chicanery.

"My sister," Peter recounted, "was a mean little girl. She was always so mean to me. Years later she told me, 'You know, when you were dying, I prayed to God that if He let you live, I would never be mean to you again. And you know? I was mean to you again right away.' "

"I couldn't help it," Jane explained. "He was a rotten kid in those days. He was back to being a brat before we knew he was well. I loved him anyhow."

Jane returned to the Greenwich Academy for her last semester. Peter spent a month in the hospital and a month recuperating at home.

Fonda: My Life, pages 220-221:
Before they left for New York, Susan [Henry Fonda's wife] readied Jane and Peter [Henry's children, Jane Fonda and Peter Fonda] for boarding schools in the East; Jane to Emma Willard, in Troy, New York, Peter to Fay School in upper Massachusetts...

Peter, packed off to the Fay School, forced to make up the sixth grade due to his shooting accident, was filled with resentment and resolved to return to his starring role as mischief maker when a sudden, unexpted emotion came over him.

"I needed to call somebody Mom, just like my grandmother had said," Peter remembered. "So I went to my math teacher at Fay and asked him the propriety of calling Susan [his step-mother] 'Mom.' He told me I could if I wanted to and if she had no objection. So I wrote her and she wrote back and said yes. I was happy as the devil must be when Sunday School lets out."

Fonda: My Life, pages 27-29:
After graduation from Central High School, Henry chose the University of Minnesota--not that he had anything against the University of Nebraska [near where he lived], but the home office of the telephone company was in Minnesota, and he figured chances of getting a full-time job there were good. He figured wrong. After enrolling at Minnesota he went around to the Northwestern Bell Telephone Company and learned to his dismay that the best they could give him was part-time employment as a troubleshooter. He accepted...

"For me, college wasn't a breeze. I had eight o'clock classes, I worked from three to eleven at the Settlement House. On the weekends, if Northwestern Bell needed me, I'd troubleshoot for them, and I had a steady girl. God! I never even kissed her once. Scout's honor.

Fonda reached the rank of Eagle Scout in his youth, and to this day, to emphasize a point, he frequently raises his right hand and makes the three-finger salute of the Boy Scouts of America.

This is not to infer that Fonda remained a Boy Scout forever. The transition from boy-child to man-child [i.e., losing his virginity] came during the summer after he returned from [college in] Minneapolis. A group of high school chums, after a bout with the needle beer of Prohibition, lured he virgin Henry to a disreputable part of town and a two-dollar whorehouse.

"It was a horrible experience," he says. "I knew what you were supposed to do, but I'd never done it. It was just curious and it wasn't at all what I thought it should be. It was just 'Wham, bam.' I was repulsed. It turned me off for quite a while."

Henry Fonda is the father of Jane Fonda, who was largely non-religious earlier in her career but made headlines when she announced to the world (and to her agnostic husband Ted Turner) that she had become a born-again Christian. Fonda's role in Advise and Consent is mentioned. This movie based on the same-titled fictional novel, focuses on confirmation hearings for Fonda's character. The film's noble central character is Brigham Anderson, a Latter-day Saint Senator from Utah charged with leading the hearings. This is one of the most critically acclaimed major feature films ever made by a Hollywood studio to feature a Mormon central character. From: Fonda: My Life, page 277:
Fortunately for MGM, the studio producing the picture, the young woman had only a week's vacation. Fonda had enough strength left for the remaining scenes and then went to Washington where he played the Secretary-of-State designate in Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent.

...At the film's conclusion Fonda returned to New York for his son's [Peter Fonda] debut as an actor on Broadway. Blood, Sweat, and Stanley Poole opened on October 5, 1961. Young Fonda's reviews were excellent.

"Now I can stand on my own two feet," Peter declared, "and ispense with anybody who comes up to me and says, 'You are here because of who you are are and not because of your talent.'"

Three days later Peter and Susan Brewer, stepdaughter of Howard Hughes's good right arm, Noah Dietrich, were married at St. Bartholomew's Church. [Saint Bartholomew's Church, on Park Avenue and 51st Street in New York City (http://www.stbarts.org/) is a New York City landmark. It is an Episcopal church. It is not clear whether or not either Peter Fonda or his bride were Episcopalians.]

Fonda: My Life, pages 303-304:
On December 20, 1968, John Steinbeck died in his home in New York. His grieving widow, Elaine, sat with Nathaniel Benchley, the author, and drew up a list of pallberers for her husband's funeral.

"I calldd St. James Church," Elaine Steinbeck said, "and asked thim if the strict Episcopal service might permit three short poems to be read by Henry Fonda. They told me it could..."

"God! I was distressed by the news," Fonda says. "John was a man of gigantic talent and a fine person. I said to the director and the producer of whatever movie I was making, 'Boys, count me out for a day or two, shoot around me, do whatever you have to because I'm going to New York.'

"At the church I did my bit, three short poems by Synge, Tennyson, and Robert Louis Stevenson..."

Fonda: My Life, page 310:
During the campaign to publicize The Cheyenne Social Club, [Henry] Fonda ran into heavy flak regarding his daughter Jane's [political] activities.

"We were in Salt Lake City," Jim Stewart [Jimmy Stewart/James Stewart, Fonda's co-star in the film] said, "to do a television promotion to plug the picture. The man who was going to interview us said, 'Is there anything you'd rather not talk about?' And Hank [Henry Fonda] said, 'Well, I'd just as soon not get into a discussion about Jane and her politics. I'd just as soon stick to what we're here for, the picture.'

"'Well,' the man said, 'I see. All right.' And so we went on the air, and the first question the man asked was, 'Mr. Fonda, I understand that your daughter Jane sort of looks upon herself as an American Joan of Arc. Is that true?'

"And Hank, never changing his voice or expression, said, 'Yes. It's true. And I don't think she'll be satisfied until they burn her at the stake!' Well, the guy hemmed and hawed and then went on to The Cheyenne Social Club for the rest of the program. Hank handled it well."

Fonda: My Life, pages 352-353:
When Lloyd Nolan spoke to the AFI, he said, "When Charles Laughton told me who was going to play Barney Greenwald in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, I told him, 'You've got to be kidding. Henry Fonda is about as Jewish as Cardinal Spelling.' As an actor, I should have known better."

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