Monday, November 7, 2011

Episcopal Bishop Tried, Convicted, and Deposed for Heresy

The recent issue of the Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin contains a fascinating article. Entitled "The Red Bishop," it's about the Rt. Rev. William Montgomery Brown (1855-1937). Brown was the bishop of Arkansas from 1899-1912, during which time he became a Communist and openly rejected core teachings of the Christian faith. According to one source, Brown "is best remembered as the first Anglican Bishop to be tried for heresy since the Reformation, and the first of any creed in America to be deposed for heretical teachings." He ended up accepting an offer to be a bishop in the Old Catholic Church (and, incredibly, one source says that the Russian Orthodox Church offered to take him in!).

Here's some of what the article says:

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. ...

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." ...

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. ...

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." ...

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.

Read it all.

All told, it's not only a fascinating but also a sad story. And it serves as a reminder that the issue of bishops who openly reject the faith of the Church and teach things that contradict that faith hardly began with Bishop Pike or Bishop Spong. Nevertheless, unless I've missed something, Brown is the only bishop in the Episcopal Church who has ever been convicted and deposed for heresy (something which might seem unthinkable to most of us today, regardless of how far off the reservation a bishop's theology may go).


The Underground Pewster said...

Haven't you heard? Heresy is now called "Heroic Prophecy," and makes for best selling books, the speaker's circuit, and promotion up the church ladder.

Only mean and judgemental people use the term heresy anymore.

Bryan Owen said...

It's certainly true, Underground Pewster, that the very idea of "heresy" is not politically correct. Indeed, perhaps the only heresy widely accepted these days is believing that there is such a thing as heresy! All of which prompts one observer to ask, "Can we talk about heresy?"

Kurt said...

Humm. When I think of heresy, I think of Calvinism.

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Kurt. I'll admit that I'm not terribly fond of TULIPs. :)

Apis Melliflora said...

Thomas wrote his Senior Thesis in History (at Kenyon) on Bishop Brown. The article in the Bulletin is good, but not complete in a few ways.

Bryan Owen said...

I'll bet that Thomas' thesis was a very interesting project to work on!