A Walk Down Episcopal Memory Lane–Bill Mayr on Bishop William Montgomery Brown

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… [Episcopal] 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.

Read it all.


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * Christian Life / Church Life, * Religion News & Commentary, Church History, Episcopal Church (TEC), Other Faiths, TEC Bishops

5 comments on “A Walk Down Episcopal Memory Lane–Bill Mayr on Bishop William Montgomery Brown

  1. Creedal Christian says:

    I wonder how long it will be before someone proposes to add Brown to [i]Holy Women, Holy Men[/i]?

  2. wvparson says:

    Brown’s portrait is stored somewhere in Little Rock, the only bishop not represented on the walls of the diocesan office.

  3. Sarah says:

    You know, in so many ways, he reminds me of just your standard-issue current-day Episcopal bishop — not in what he believed, but simply in how he came to believe what he believed: the mental illness, the ego, the vapidity, the shiftiness, the lack of intellectual rigor, the “monumental hubris.”
    [blockquote]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. . . .

    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.”[/blockquote]

  4. Dr. William Tighe says:

    Frederick Joseph Kinsman (1868-1944), Bishop of Delaware from 1908 to 1919, resigned in that last year to become a “Roman” Catholic. In his final book, *Reveries of A Hermit* (1936), he refers obliquely to the case of Bishop Brown in its chapter on “Anglicanism” (p. 142). Interested readers may wish to search out the book (which is a winsome medley of lectures and reminiscences), although it is very rare.

  5. New Reformation Advocate says:

    Hmmm. I think it’s inaccurate to say that William Montgomery Brown was the one and only Episcopal bishop tried for heresy so far; he’s just the only one actually convicted and deposed on that basis. But there certainly are others who SHOULD have been tried for heresy, yet weren’t. Or were accused of heresy, but never convicted.

    Alas, a church that tolerates everything (except firm orthodoxy), teaches nothing–except unlimited tolerance.

    I was struck by the part at the end, where it was noted that, “[i]He renounced everything about Christianity, and yet he was in church every Sunday.[/i]” Taking communion to boot. And of course, what’s fascinating is not only that he was willing to take it, but that as an apostate, the church was willing to give it to him!

    Truly the troubles in TEC go back a long, long way.

    David Handy+