John Nicholls Booth found acclaim and controversy in a career that took him from stage to pulpit.
On the road to ministry, Unitarian Universalist clergy have held jobs of every description, including teacher, bartender, shelf stocker, social worker, bike messenger, technical writer, and punk band roadie. The Rev. John Nicholls Booth (1912–2009) was an accomplished professional magician when he was ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1942.
Joined by his wife Edith (Kriger) Booth, the award-winning magician accepted his first ministerial post at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois, exchanging the stage for the pulpit. If the leap from magic to ministry surprised his show-business colleagues, it was no shock to his father, the Rev. Sydney Scott Booth, who was also a Unitarian minister. The younger Booth served several congregations in his thirty-three-year ministry, wrote extensively on the art of “conjuring” and other topics, and found time for adventure travel, lecture tours, journalism, and filmmaking.
For decades, Booth’s popular pamphlet, “Introducing Unitarian Universalism,” provided an introduction to the faith for visitors and new members. In his voluminous writings—from The Quest for Preaching Power (1943) to The Fine Art of Hocus Pocus (1996)—Booth spoke with the thoroughness of a scholar and the confidence of a showman. A publicity flyer for one of his travel lectures describes him venturing “over the Himalayas into mysterious Tibet,” and encountering “the veiled Tribesmen of forbidden Timbuctoo [sic].” Booth performed magic for early television broadcasts and later hosted his own program, Looking at Life, on WBKB Chicago. At the root of these wide-ranging projects were curiosity and affection for the human spirit, which Booth was eager to share.
If a magician’s job is to dazzle us by manipulating what we cannot see, the minister is up to different tricks, teaching us to look closely at what is before us. In ministry, Booth was guided by an impulse to reveal truth as he saw it and, as a result, he found controversy. In 1969, his sermon arguing for a woman’s right to abort was excerpted in the Los Angeles Times. During the same period, he spoke strongly against what he called “Israeli imperialism,” stirring tensions in his congregation at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach, California.
Early in his career, while serving the Second Church in Boston, Booth took up a more specific crusade regarding that congregation’s role in the American Revolution. In The Story of the Second Church in Boston, the Original Old North (1959), he contends that it was Second Church in Boston’s North End—not Christ Church, which tourists visit today—from which patriots hung lanterns revealing the route of British troops (“one if by land, and two if by sea”). Booth also rattled some Second Church congregants by liberalizing centuries-old practices of worship. A 1961 press release (likely penned by Booth) notes that he was not the first minister at Second Church to do so; Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned from the same pulpit in 1832, after saying he could not serve communion.
At Booth’s death in 2009 at age 97, he was celebrated by fellow magicians for his technical skill, audience rapport, and firsthand knowledge of magic’s history, from vaudeville to the rise of mass media. He was elected to the Society of American Magicians’ Hall of Fame, alongside such magic notables as Harry Houdini and Ching Ling Foo. Mentees remembered him as a generous friend, and his books remain respected manuals of the trade. Three ceremonies in Booth’s honor highlighted the unusual arc of his life: memorials at the UU Church of Long Beach and the Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles, and a “Broken Wand Ceremony” by the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
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The Rev. John Nicholls Booth was already a famous magician when he became a UU minister (courtesy of Genii the conjurors’ magazine / Andover-Harvard Theological Library)
Kris Willcox is a Unitarian Universalist, writer, and fundraising consultant in Arlington, Massachusetts.
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