William Wallace Fenn was born in Boston on February 12, 1862, to Hannah Morrill Osgood and William Fenn, who died only seven weeks after his son's birth. Fenn graduated from Harvard in 1884 and received an AM and STB (bachelor of sacred theology) from the Divinity School in 1887. He had entered the Divinity School "not ... with the design of becoming a minister, but rather with a view to the teaching of N. T. Greek."
Raised in an orthodox congregationalist (and known as one while a student at the Divinity School), Fenn had begun to question beliefs as he studied the Bible. He was not, however, sure he wanted to become a Unitarian: "The Orthodox won't have me for I have declared my heresy and the Unitarians don't want my kind of man." Ordained a Unitarian minister in 1890, Fenn served parishes in Pittsfield and Chicago from 1887 to 1901. In Chicago, Fenn began his teaching career at the Meadville Theological School. While teaching at Meadville, Fenn articulated a functional and pragmatic approach to religion; in so doing, he levied criticism against liberal optimism, questioning its ability to deal with human suffering.
In 1901, Fenn was named that Bussey Professor of Systematic Theology at Harvard (although he had no background in the area). From 1906 to 1922 Fenn was the Dean of the Divinity School and received his STD (doctor of sacred theology) from the school in 1908. He also served on the University's Board of Preachers for five years (non-consecutively).
At Harvard, Fenn stressed a "General Theism," which questioned many ideas that later became important in Christian theology: humanism and the centrality of the historical Jesus in liberal strains of Christian thought. Fenn was also known for his keen sense of humor; one of his most popular lecture topics was "The Humor of the Bible." As a teacher he was remembered this way: "He made us feel that together with him, amid the generous bequests of philosophers and theologians we were seeking for the hidden treasure of great souls, -- not so much the knowledge as the wisdom by which men live."
Fenn's other scholarly work centered on religious life in New England, with The Religious History of New England: King's Chapel Lectures (1917), and The Christian Way of Life as Illustrated in the History of Religion in New England (1924).
Additional sources of information:
American National Biography. Edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999
William Wallace Fenn: His Journal, Together with Pertinent Letters and News Items. Concord, Mass.: Dorothy Fenn Duncan, 1973.
Robert Burns Street, "Speaking for the Class of 1914," Harvard Divinity Bulletin, v. 28, no. 4 (July 1964), p. 105-106.