At age 20, Edward Steiner finally fled the political police of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was his third attempt to leave for America after being accused of “conspiracy,” stemming from his sympathy towards the empire’s oppressed Slovaks. He landed on Ellis Island in 1886 and 17 years later, in 1903, he arrived at Grinnell College as a professor in Applied Christianity.
During his 38 years at Grinnell, Steiner would “spread its name and influence throughout the nation” as “no man before or since has,” as Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Neal Klauser said at the dedication of Steiner Hall in 1959. He became such a prominent lecturer that the College would have to give him a semester’s leave of absence so that he could accept all the invitations.
Steiner’s scholarly work ranged from a biography on his personal friend and mentor Leo Tolstoy to writings on the “social gospel” movement. Both Steiner and Grinnell College played a large role in cultivating the social gospel movement, a theological philosophy around the turn of the 20th century which applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially labor issues.
However, Steiner did not come to this national prominence or even to his religious beliefs easily. Born a Jew in what is now the Czech Republic, he escaped persecution in Europe only to come into the hard life of a recent immigrant in the United States. He worked various hard-labor jobs, pressing cloaks, making sausage, mining coal, and working on tobacco farms, according to his obituary in the Des Moines Register.
He went on to study at Oberlin College, where he graduated in 1891 and quickly became a Congregational minister after converting from Judaism to Christianity, but the plight of the recent immigrant stayed with him. At the building’s dedication ceremony, Klauser said Steiner’s first experiences in the U.S. “burned into his soul and ultimately defined the purpose of his life–the amelioration of” the immigrant’s struggles.
Steiner remained an outspoken pacifist throughout both World Wars. During World War I, people in the town of Grinnell would not speak to Steiner because he refused to sanction the war in his sermons. After being accused of disloyalty, he responded by saying, “If my country calls for my last penny and my last drop of blood, it can have it. One thing I will not do, I will not by word or deed increase the hate which is in the world,” according to Klauser’s speech.
But what Steiner was most known for at Grinnell College was his “half hours,” when he would invite students into his home for a short meeting. After talking briefly, Steiner would then tell the student what he or she should do with his or her life.
Harry Hopkins, class of 1912, was one of those students. Hopkins wanted to be a journalist, but Steiner told him to go into social service, according to Steiner’s obituary. Hopkins started his career as a journalist, but quickly followed Steiner’s advice, eventually becoming a close adviser of President Franklin Roosevelt.
Steiner remained at Grinnell until he retired in 1941, when he moved to California. He died in 1956 after suffering though illness following surgery.