|The New York Anglicans: Twenty Who Shaped the Twentieth Century
(continued from previous page)
|The Anglican Examiner
Copyright by Donn Mitchell, 2020.
Perkins was an Anglo-Catholic, which is to say she was an Episcopalian who was
drawn to the catholic heritage of the Church of England and its American daughter,
the Episcopal Church. Throughout her twelve years in the New Deal, she spent one
day a month in silent retreat at the Catonsville, Maryland, convent of All Saints’ Sister
of the Poor, an Episcopal religious order. She was steeped in the writings of the
British Anglo-Catholic socialists, in Thomas Aquinas, and the papal encyclicals.
And for the twenty years before she went to Washington, she was immersed in the
unique religious culture of New York, where high-church Anglicanism had played a
formative role in shaping a public religious culture that was distinctly different from
the idealist Protestantism that had long enjoyed national hegemony. Tory in pedigree
and catholic in theology, New York Anglicanism enjoyed religious presidency in a city
where Roman Catholics and Jews tipped the balance in favor of a vision of
community that was at once pluralistic and solidaristic. Together, these three groups
forged a religious and civic culture that gave rise to a “politics of generosity.” In 1932,
this politics would move onto the national stage.
To fully appreciate just how different this New York religious culture was from the
latter-day Puritanism that dominated the nineteenth century, it is necessary to return to
an earlier time.
The year was 1891. The setting was old Trinity Church, sturdily enthroned on the
highest point overlooking Wall Street. A processional cross led the choir and vested
clergy down the center aisle. Processions themselves, especially those led by a cross,
were rare enough in U.S. Protestantism in those days, but this one pushed the
envelope beyond the latent fears of resurgent royalism that haunted nineteenth century
America. Behind the cross, a black man carried a red flag.
This was not a liturgical banner of Pentecost, although Wellesley professor Vida
Scudder assures us that the connection is clear. No, this was the red flag, the one
that would inspire—and terrify—the century to come.
Immediately behind him, a white man carried that other inspiring and terrifying
flag—the “Stars ‘n’ Stripes.” The occasion was the second in a series of Labor
Sunday masses promoted by the Church Association for the Advancement of the
Interests of Labor, popularly known by the acronym CAIL. Trade union
officials marched in procession, and the rank and file filled the pews to
overflowing, according to Scudder.
To those for whom the wealth and prestige of Trinity Church seemed to be its
defining characteristics, this warm embrace of a social movement so offensive to
the bourgeois sensibility must have seemed strange. What was at work here?
Noblesse oblige? Paternalism? Appeasement of the restless masses? Veiled
exploitation? Enlightened self-interest? Or radical chic?
Each theory has its apologists, but none would likely suggest that the alliance
might have been based on a common worldview shaped by a common
experience of grace. In other words, no one would suggest that it might have
Yet to suggest that the richest and the poorest might share a common
worldview, different from people in the middle, begins to make sense when the
relevance of circumstance is compared to the relevance of individual effort.
People with inherited wealth know they did not earn it no matter how worthy of
it they may think themselves.
Likewise, people born into poverty know they did not create their deprivation
despite what the advocates of moral improvement might say. Both groups are
likely to view their situation as “a given”—something that came to them as a
function of fate, some would say, or by the grace of God, according to others.
For people between those extremes, on the other hand, individual effort really is
paramount. Not enough and they will be worse off. A little bit more and they
may be better off by far.
Similar differences in perception attach to agrarian versus urban settings. In the agrarian context, no matter how much planting and cultivation is done, material success
still has a lot to do with the wind and the rain and the birds and the bees. In the urban world of commerce and industry, though, shrewd calculation, effective planning,
prudent use of resources, and correct anticipation of supply and demand carry the day. Judgment, rather than fate, is what really matters.
Is it any wonder, then, that in the English Civil War, both the landed aristocracy and the peasantry who farmed the estates clung to a catholic worldview that emphasized
divine agency, thanksgiving, and celebration, while the urban mercantile classes were drawn to a Calvinist view that emphasized discipline, judgment, and anticipation?
God’s grace, inherited relationships, and hereditary birthright are on one side of the equation. God’s judgment, personal righteousness, and meritocracy are on the other.
Of course by 1891 it is doubtful that anyone at CAIL’s Labor Sunday mass was thinking of the political alignments of the English Civil War, although historian Kevin
Phillips asserts that the Cavalier-Roundhead cleavage is traceable through Anglo-American politics right up to the close of the nineteenth century. But psychologically as
well as chronologically these people were pretty far from the seventeenth century. And it should be noted that Trinity, from its founding in 1697 had always had a
handsome share of the urban merchant class in its membership, so the historical pattern does not replicate itself with scientific precision.
|With the founding of the republic,
New York state became the first
North American polity to offer
full citizenship to Jews.
By 1806, Roman Catholics
enjoyed the same status.
Yet when viewed through an institutional lens, the socio-economic skeleton of the old Cavalier alliance is
still visible. Trinity Church was (and still is) a landed aristocrat. Endowed by the Crown in 1705, Trinity’s
glebe stretched from nearby Fulton Street to Christopher Street in present-day Greenwich Village. To this
very day, Wall Street pays rent to this parish of the Episcopal Church. The revenues from this handsome
endowment enabled the parish to found or substantially endow many of the city’s leading institutions,
including King’s College, now Columbia University.
|Behind the processional cross,
a black man carried a red flag.
|New York Anglicanism was internally
diverse, almost from the very
It was not Trinity Church but rather Trinity’s tenants who had turned Wall Street into the capital of
capitalism. Trinity was the Lord of the Manor. It would have received rents from the estate whether it
had continued as farmland or had been developed for residential housing or defense fortifications.
Trinity’s wealth, then, was not earned. It was literally “a given,” and it came with a charge from the
Crown to provide for the spiritual needs of all New Yorkers, whether they were Anglican or not.
Most of them were not.
Anglicanism never claimed more than a third of the colony’s population, and even that number is
disputed. Some commentators put it as low as five or ten percent, which if true makes the influence of
Anglicanism all the more remarkable. More important than numerical strength, however, is the fact that
New York Anglicanism was itself internally diverse, almost from the very beginning.
The demographic lens yields similar results. The urban working classes were (and still are) the heirs of the rural peasantry, displaced by cash crops and driven to the
cities for survival. And just as staunchly Catholic Irish peasants once made common cause with the otherwise obnoxious Anglican establishment in their efforts to resist
Cromwell’s advances, by the 1890s their emigrant descendants were the backbone of New York’s labor movement. Hence, the not-so-strange participation of loyal
Irish Catholics in a Labor Sunday liturgy straight out of the Book of Common Prayer.
Significant numbers of Huguenot and Dutch Reformed New Yorkers had been, willingly and
unwillingly, incorporated into the Anglican establishment. Early eighteenth century work among the
Iroquois and among African-Americans further increased this internal diversity.
Equally important is that there was political diversity as well. Despite being a stronghold of Toryism,
at the time of the American Revolution, the Anglican establishment in New York also included some
importan supporters of independence. John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, for instance, both members
of Trinity, would be among the architects of the new order. But it was perhaps this very combination
of internal pluralism and inherited civic responsibility that enabled New York Anglicanism to weather
the transition from religious establishment to religious presidency after the Revolution. A minority
tradition even when it was official, it had learned to walk cautiously. Now stripped of its official
mantle, it continued apace with the institutional equivalent of the stiff upper lip.
With the founding of the republic, New York state became the first North American polity to offer full
citizenship to Jews. By 1806, Roman Catholics enjoyed the same status. By the end of the
nineteenth century, the majority of New York City residents would be Roman Catholic, with Jews and
Episcopalians the second and third largest groups, respectively. All of the city’s twentieth century
mayors would come from one of those three groups, as would most of the principals of the New Deal.
(The quintessential mayoral example was Fiorello LaGuardia, an Episcopalian with a Catholic father
and a Jewish mother, who ran first as a Republican and then as a Socialist. And like, Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, he was a fund-raiser for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.)
Although there is no evidence of an intentional effort to organize adherents of these three religious traditions into a political coalition, the fact is that they tended to
function that way, and there was some recognition of that. For instance, it was common when some community initiative was in the formative stage for the
leadership to say “We need someone from the Jewish community” or “We need a priest” to round out or enhance the credibility of the initiative. But there seems to
be less awareness that commonalities in their religious backgrounds may partly explain why New Yorkers gravitated toward a “politics of generosity” rather than a
“politics of righteousness,” ultimately emphasizing social provision rather than social discipline.
In theological terms, it was the God of grace versus the God of judgment. In social terms, it was community as inherited relationship rather than community as
voluntary association of the like-minded—the convinced, the converted, the regenerate, etc. Philosophically, all three groups shared the Aristotelianism of the
emerging social sciences rather than the Platonism of historic Protestantism, which is to say they were realist rather than idealist. All three tended to affirm the
material and the existential, valuing relationships more than abstract principles, and tending to see human nature as basically good, with sin a forgivable consequence
of human limitation rather than evidence of a pre-existing moral depravity. All three were racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse. We can easily grasp the
linguistic diversity of Catholic and Jewish immigrants, who came from many different countries. But even the Episcopal Diocese of New York could boast in 1900
that mass was celebrated every Sunday in nine different languages.
|One of the reasons is that, despite the Episcopal Church’s aristocratic heritage, by the dawn of the
twentieth century, it was the number one Protestant denomination among the city’s poor, largely owing to
its continuing, if somewhat delusional, sense that it was uniquely responsible for the whole community—
not just its own members—because it was more or less the “unofficial” state church. For example, the
Episcopal Church pioneered the development of chaplaincies in the city’s institutions, yet long after Catholic
and Jewish chaplaincies were developed, the Episcopal Church continued to be in charge of all Protestant
chaplaincy in city-owned institutions—a situation which ended only in the mid-1960s.
Along similar lines, the church developed the Actors Church Alliance, which later subdivided into three
groups: The Catholic Actors Guild, the Jewish Actors Guild, and the Episcopal Actors Guild (open to
actors of all faiths, or none). To this day, the majority of the guild members are not Episcopalians, but they
continue to be headquartered at the Little Church Around the Corner, and they use Prayer Book liturgies to
commemorate the departed and to mark other occasions.
This vestigial state church concept shows up elsewhere in the development of the Cathedral of St. John the
Divine as a “house of prayer for all people,” the development of Washington National Cathedral to satisfy L’
Enfant’s plan to have a great house of worship for national purposes, the founding of Groton, St. Paul’s,
and Middlesex schools to “raise up leaders for the nation,” and the development of the George Washington
Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, where the liturgy opens every Sunday with the first verse of the Star
But to better understand the church that nurtured Perkins and the Roosevelts, let us momentarily return to
those sign crimes in the 1891 Labor Sunday procession. What can we make of that curious juxtaposition
of the Star Spangled Banner with the red flag of international socialism? Well, Fabian Socialist George
Bernard Shaw was confident that soviet-style works councils would eventually be lawfully established in
England. When that day came, he said, they would no doubt be called “Her Majesty’s soviets.”
With similar reverence for the values of the state, this procession seemed to say that when socialism came
to the United States, it would be red, but it would also be white and blue—constitutional, democratic, and
The cultural consistency is obvious. These Anglicans were heirs of a loyalist tradition—one that had a
sacramental understanding of both ecclesia and civitas. The civil order was now a republic, but it was still
an outward and visible sign of the grace God transmits through community. Can we be surprised that a
church that valued civic and ecclesiastical unity so highly saw something sacramental in the “solidarity” the
labor unions embodied?
The message was also theologically consistent. The material needs of human beings needed to be
integrated into the framework of abstract ideas that governed the republic. Just as the Gospel of John
suggested that the Word, in order to be fully understood, had to become Flesh, abstract ideals such as
freedom and opportunity had to manifest themselves concretely in food, shelter, and adequate income—or
they were just words. Can we be surprised to find this Johannine theology in a diocese that dedicated its
cathedral to St. John the Divine? And can we see why it might have been agreeable to Roman Catholics,
whose church at that time had had twenty-two Popes named John and only five named Paul?
And are we surprised to learn that when one of New York’s landed gentry, Franklin Roosevelt, was elected
President, he would propose an economic bill of rights to balance the political Bill of Rights attached to the
U.S. Constitution? Although it never became law in the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady
turned global community-maker, would assure its inclusion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It was into this strain of loyalist, materialist, realist Anglicanism that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were
born, and it was to this Anglicanism that a 24-year-old Frances Perkins would make a lifelong commitment.
|"You cannot claim to worship Jesus in
the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus
in the slums. . . It is folly -- it is
madness -- to suppose that you can
worship Jesus in the Sacraments and
Jesus on the throne of glory, when you
are sweating him in the souls and
bodies of his children."
|- - Bishop Frank Weston at the 1923
Copyright by William Porto, 2008.
|Houses of Prayer for All People
Above: The Cathedral of St. John the Divine,
New York City.
Below: Washington National Cathedral,