The Red Bishop

A Self-Contained World

For more than a century, the Theological Seminary of the Diocese of Ohio-better known as Bexley Hall-occupied its own little corner of Kenyon. More...

Some called him the Red Bishop, others the Bad Bishop, or even the Mad Bishop. But no one called Episcopalian William Montgomery Brown a boring bishop

A Gilded-Age Ohioan educated at Kenyon's Bexley Hall seminary, Brown cut a broad swath through life, a man of God who morphed into a man of Marx-and Darwin, too. He was the first Episcopalian bishop, and only one so far, to be tried for heresy.

Bexley Hall, a fixture at Kenyon until 1968, holds few stories as fascinating as Brown's. His career-part Willy Loman meets Elmer Gantry, with touches of Horatio Alger Jr. and Jay Gatsby-reflects both the meandering path of an individual life and the winds of social change that swept across the land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Above all, Brown strove to hold sway among those around him. "It's a constant in his life, this business of wanting to be somebody," said historian Ronald M. Carden, author of William Montgomery Brown (1855-1937): The Southern Episcopal Bishop Who Became a Communist.

He began life, in fact, as a nobody. Born in 1855 to poor parents on a farm outside of Orrville in northern Ohio, Brown by age seven had neither of his parents at his side: his father had died from illness contracted while a Union solider in the Civil War, and his mother, with three children and little money, bound him over to a nearby farmer.

A kindly family eventually took him in, introducing him to genteel living and Methodism. He grew to be "affable, energetic, and obviously intelligent," according to Carden, and by the time he reached his early twenties, he was hoping to become a Methodist minister. But, through his foster family, he met a Cleveland real-estate heiress, Mary Scranton Bradford, an Episcopalian. Under her influence, Brown switched denominations and, with her funding, enrolled in Bexley Hall.

Episcopalian on the Rise

He arrived in Gambier in 1880, when he was twenty-five. At the time, Kenyon had a mere sixty-six students. Bexley Hall had thirteen seminarians.

"It was a pretty lively village in terms of the friendships of people who lived here and the students," according to College Historian Thomas P. Stamp. "Faculty members entertained a lot in their homes, students and other faculty members, sort of a village-wide salon."

The Reveille for 1881-82 notes local shops including Alonzo Jacobs's shoe store, O. F. Bowman's Shaving & Hair Dressing Parlor, and S.R. Doolittle's emporium offering "dry goods, tobaccos, ice cream & fresh oysters."

The Philomathesian Society engaged students in debate and literary discussion. The yearbook also lists the Poker Club, the Mashing Club, the Eating Society, and the Society for the Prevention of Flunking.

Some of the seminarians were reading Darwin at the time, but not Brown. "How foolish of them, I thought, to read such books!" he would later write in his autobiography, My Heresy. "This book was not a necessary part of our training for the ministry, and why should anybody in training for the ministry read anything that would tend to weaken his faith?"

After three years of study, Brown left Bexley Hall. He never actually met all of the degree requirements. But a degree wasn't actually required for the Episcopal priesthood. He was ordained and began his career at Grace Church in Galion, northwest of Gambier. There, he began to rise in ecclesiastical authority. And it would be in Galion that he later gained notoriety for his turn toward radicalism.

In 1885, he married Ella Bradford, the adopted daughter of his patroness. "It is probable that Mary Scranton Bradford had him in mind as a son-in-law when she financed his studies," wrote Carden in his biography. "She was totally devoted to the church, and an Episcopal clergyman would have been to her liking."

Carden, who teaches at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, added: "It was an advantageous match for Brown as well. He acquired social status and wealth through marriage." Though childless, the marriage lasted five decades, until Ella's death.

As a wedding gift, Mrs. Bradford built her daughter and son-in-law a comfortable two-story Victorian home across the street from the church. The residence was called Brownella Cottage, a play on the new Mrs. Brown's first and last names. Amenities in the house, now maintained by the Galion Historical Society, included servants' quarters (and a call system with which to fetch them), a small organ, an upright piano, and even an early phonograph.

Brown devoted himself to his pastoral duties. He supervised missionary work in Ohio and lectured at Bexley Hall. But he also began to emerge as something of a militant Episcopalian. In 1895, he published The Church for Americans, a tract of nearly 500 pages arguing that every right-thinking American should join the Episcopal Church.

After all, he argued, many American governors, senators, and other notables were Episcopalians, among them William H. Vanderbilt, "the richest man the world had ever known." Moreover, of the fifty-five signers of the Declaration of Independence, thirty-five were Episcopalians.

The national church took note. In 1898, three years after the book's publication, Brown was consecrated bishop-coadjutor for the Arkansas diocese and received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Kenyon.

He and his wife moved to Little Rock, where in 1899 he became bishop. He was forty-four years old.

Racist and Egalitarian

Bishop Brown had a rocky career in Arkansas. Internal church politics made his election controversial. His sometimes autocratic style and ongoing local church disputes worked against him. So did his annual stays in Galion, far from the diocese.

He tried to shore up his standing-to "mend his political fences," as Carden put it-by embracing southern attitudes toward race. In a book called The Crucial Race Question, Brown proposed strict segregation for the Episcopal Church: one autonomous but separate church for blacks, another for whites.

"Amalgamation is a ruinous crime," he wrote. Cain's murder of Abel, by comparison, was "a crime that was venial compared with that of miscegenation."

National churchmen were irked. Worse yet, few Arkansas church members were placated.

Brown struggled. He was industrious and earnest but, coming from poverty, "he always wanted to emulate" people in the higher social strata, Carden said. Success changed him. Carden feels that Brown "was overwhelmed by his own importance."

Seeking to wield influence, drawn to ideas on a grand scale, Brown continued to cobble together visions of Christianity and political philosophy. The Ohio seminarian turned Arkansas racist now developed a scheme for a sort of church egalitarianism.

In a 1910 book, he unveiled a plan for "leveling." The idea was that members of all Protestant denominations would select their own bishops and all would come together under the umbrella of Episcopalianism. As part of the project, Brown dropped some elements his church held dear, such as apostolic succession and a priestly class.

Brown campaigned for his plan nationally. But Episcopalians, both lay and clerical, shunned his ideas. Some bishops burned the book; churchmen even talked of heresy, according to Brown's autobiography. He ignored the routine duties of his diocese while campaigning for his plan, further alienating local congregants.

By 1911, the bishop appeared to be "in a state of mental excitement," Carden wrote, adding that the bishop also might have developed diabetes or possibly had a stroke. He took a leave
of absence from the diocese, returning to Galion-for good, as it turned out.

"That there could be so much bitterness in the Church astonished me," Brown wrote in My Heresy. "I brooded about it. I brooded about a lot of things. In 1912, since my health had not improved, I resigned my diocese, counted my life's work closed and decided to spend my remaining days in obscurity."

He was fifty-seven. What lay ahead was the opposite of obscurity.

Revelation: Darwin and Marx

In Galion, Brown's physician, apparently looking for ways to reinvigorate the bishop intellectually, suggested he read Darwin. With time to read and contemplate, Brown began to change his views.

And the change was big. "I no longer believed in a personal God, nor in a six-day creation, nor in a literal heaven and hell," Brown wrote. No fall of man, nor a redemption through the blood of Christ, either. Creeds, he decided, were symbolical, nothing more.

Others guided him towards socialism, and he began reading Marx, too. "That was another revelation," Brown wrote. "Darwin was now my Old Testament, Marx my New."

A number of factors may explain this change. Perhaps Brown's boyhood as a farmhand planted the seeds of class consciousness. Then there was his temperament. Brown was a man of "monumental hubris and desire for attention," wrote Carden. "He chose shocking positions to gain notoriety." In addition, the bishop was influenced by several unorthodox advisers. One was his secretary, a German minister, who introduced him to nontraditional notions of Christianity.

"I think he had a desire to be accepted as an intellectual," said Carden. So he assertively adopted new beliefs. "He was just repeating some of the ideas he had heard."

In 1920, Brown summarized his new philosophy in Communism and Christianism, a 247-page book urgingreaders to "Banish the Gods from the Skies and Capitalists from the Earth."

Brown wrote that capitalism had failed, that "millions are insufficiently fed, clothed, housed and warmed, and are doomed to a perpetual and exhaustive drudgery which leaves neither leisure nor energy for the cultivation of their soul life."

He called for "economic levelism," a spreading out of wealth and new respect for the worker. "Communism is for me the one comprehensive term which is a synonym at once of morality, religion and Christianity," he wrote.

Some church leaders thought him daft. Ignore him and he'll go away, said others. Still others called him a heretic who must be brought to account.

Church officials pondered their options. Eventually, three bishops, the minimum required, charged Brown with heresy. Eight like-minded bishops gathered in 1924 for a trial in Cleveland. They served as judges and jurors. And they quickly convicted him.

"They were going to hang him up by his thumbs, no matter what," Carden said. And so Brown, once a rising star of mainstream Christianity, had become a pariah.

Faith and Philosophy

Contemporary explanations for Brown's transformation vary. "I think he had a nervous breakdown," said Craig Clinger, president of the Galion Historical Society. "In Arkansas, I think he wore himself out, worked himself into a tizzy," opening the way for foreign ideas.

Stamp, Kenyon's historian, thinks the bishop perhaps experienced cognitive dissonance as he faced the world and its woes, forcing him to reconsider his beliefs. "It was the upper class, upper middle class of Episcopalianism versus what he saw in the world, especially in [low-income] Arkansas."

Carden, the biographer, feels that modernist thinkers led Brown toward a kind of hybrid ideology. He "was busy creating a religion of his own, Christian atheism," Carden wrote.

To be sure, Brown was far from alone in grappling with major challenges to religious and political orthodoxy during the early decades of the twentieth century. His heresy trial in Cleveland, which received national attention, reflects something of the same ferment that produced the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, in which Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan sparred over the science of evolution.

Meanwhile, the deposed bishop surprised his Episcopal detractors by gaining a new religious rank: he was consecrated a bishop of the Old Catholic Church of America, a group which had ties with Episcopalianism. Not wanting to lose his title, Brown had been searching for a church in communion with the Episcopal denomination.

He remained in Galion, working with ghostwriters to produce his autobiography and other books. He even wrote a children's book, Teachings of Marx for Girls and Boys. Published in 1935, the book is written in a simple, conversational manner. Portraits of Lenin, Marx, and Stalin, with stern visages all, peer out from the cover.

Brown died in 1937 at age eighty-two. He is buried in Galion's Fairview Cemetery alongside his wife and beneath a headstone that contains nary a hint about his controversial life.

In his final years, Brown had practiced both his faith and political philosophy. His will supported medical care and education; his estate made bequests to the Galion hospital and to Kenyon.

While living, he financially aided friends and the down-and-out. Some Galion residents, Clinger said, would tell stories about how "their parents were suffering during the Depression and [Brown] bought a truckload of food for them."

Washing away the blot of his earlier racism, moreover, Brown supported racial toleration.

And he regularly made the walk from Brownella Cottage across the street to Grace Church. "He renounced everything about Christianity and yet he was there in church every Sunday," Clinger said. "He even took communion. They held his funeral at the church.

"How do you reconcile all that in your head?"

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