The Story of Bad Bishop Brown

Bishop William Brown was excommunicated from the Episcopal Church in 1924. His heresy: communism.

Bishop William Brown. The Galion Historical Society

The US Episcopal Church excommunicated Bishop William Brown on May 31, 1924. His heresy was communism.

Marxists of a non-sectarian bent are prepared to work with others who also fight oppression and exploitation, including people motivated by religious convictions. In specific campaigns and movements, such collaboration does not require concessions of political principle.

But the prized presence of vicars or, better still, bishops as symbols of respectability on platforms at rallies has also been associated with the pursuit of political influence by sacrificing militancy and class struggle to liberal sensitivities. This tendency is grounded in the traditions of early twentieth Century reformist social democracy and Communists’ Popular Front policies during the second half of the1930s.

The case of Bishop Brown illustrates how, on the contrary, during periods of intense social polarisation and class struggle, people of formerly respectable and liberal or even conservative persuasions can embrace revolutionary politics.

Brown’s Radical Leap

The cover of Brown’s Communism and Christianism, self-published in 1920, bore the slogan “Banish Gods from the skies and capitalists from the earth.” Its contents sustained that slogan:

Among the signs of the times which unmistakably point to the great day of the happy consummation of the movement towards the proletarian revolution . . . is the fact that the world has recently learned from the great war that man must work out his own salvation without the least help from the gods of the supernaturalistic interpretations of religion.

Today, liberation theology is generally associated with developments in South America since World War II. But according to Karl Kautsky, there were powerful communist impulses among the first Christians. The fifteenth-century Hussites in Bohemia and the Diggers of the English revolution invoked Christian precepts to justify the common ownership of property.

Theological justifications of modern socialism, more or less distinct from traditional notions of charitable welfare and church hostility to working-class organization, emerged during the nineteenth century. But under the influence of rising levels of class struggle, mass trade unions and, particularly in Germany, the huge German Social Democratic Party, some clergy began to identify affinities between Christianity and social democracy — or more specifically Marxism — around the start of the twentieth century. In this period, several Lutheran pastors and lay activists publicly supported or joined the organization.

One of the “twelve apostles” who founded the Social Democratic Workers Party of the Netherlands, Henri van Kol, had in 1882 argued the compatibility of Christianity and socialism. Influenced by developments in Germany, Swiss pastors Hermann Kutter and of Leonhard Ragaz identified the Social Democrats as doing God’s work, and the religious socialist movement in Switzerland was closely associated with the Social Democratic Party before World War I. There were also “red vicars” such as Robert Cummings and Conrad Noel, Anglicans, in England in this period.

The war and the revolutionary upheavals associated with its end prompted the emergence or expansion of radical currents within churches in Europe and the United States. That was the case for Bishop Brown.

He was born in 1855 to an impoverished rural family in Ohio. At the age of six, after his father died during the Civil War, he “bound out” to work as an unpaid laborer until he was sixteen. After fifteen years of manual work, he went to school for the first time. In 1880, a wealthy patron, Mary Scranton Bradford, financed his education and seminary training and entry into an Episcopal ministry in Galion, a small town between Cleveland and Columbus. Bradford’s adopted daughter Ella became Brown’s wife. These and the following details of Brown’s life are mainly drawn from his 1926 autobiography, My Heresy, and Ron Carden’s informative account of his excommunication.

The Episcopal Church is Anglicanism in the United States, shorn of the Church of England’s relationship with the British state. Nevertheless, Brown’s 1895 The Church for Americans boosted Episcopalian doctrine and organization as the “American as well as our racial branch of Christ’s Church, [which] therefore … possesses exclusive claims to allegiance.” The book was very popular, at least among Episcopalians, and smoothed his path to the diocese of Arkansas, where he became the bishop in 1899.

With the justification that it would promote “Negro . . . self-government,” Brown argued in The Crucial Race Question that black and white Episcopalians should have separate churches because God “drew the Color-Line, and the failure to recognize it is irreligious.” In the South it was unpopular with many racist Episcopalians, because it suggested that African Americans could become bishops; in the North it was criticized for its racist segregationism.

In his next tome, Brown repudiated the Episcopalian orthodoxy of his first book, but not its racism, in the interests of unity among white Protestants of all churches. Still facing hostility from the parishioners of his own diocese, he sought a broader audience. Reflecting on his own missionary successes, Brown concluded that most such work in the United States involved the conversion of Christians from one sect to another. But the real task was the “evangelization of the world,” for which the unification of separate Christian denominations, on a “republican, or democratic” basis was necessary.

In a united church, he argued, doctrinal issues should be resolved through “the science of historical criticism.” The notion of apostolic succession, the divine continuity of priesthood back to Jesus’s apostles, should, in particular, be abandoned.

The book and his national campaign for the plan it proposed was far from popular among Episcopalians let alone other Christians. Brown was effectively run out of Arkansas. Although he no longer had a diocese, he retained his status as a bishop.

Back in Galion in 1911, physically broken down, intellectually disoriented and disillusioned by the collapse of his brilliant church career, he began to read widely, including Darwin’s On the Origins of Species.

Suddenly a great light dawned. I was about half through the book when it burst on me . . . My old theological universe had completely vanished . . . Scientists find out certain principles, if they can, and then act on them; theologians accept the principles which have been handed down to them, and then do not act upon them. Otherwise, they are very much alike.

Previously committed to “scientific historical criticism” within the framework of Christian theology, he eventually dealt with the contradictions between the results of scientific enquiry and religious dogma and made a radical leap to the conclusion that Christianity was symbolic of the truths of the natural sciences.

At its outset, most clerics of many faiths, like the bulk of the capitalist class and its political representatives such as President Woodrow Wilson, were opposed to US participation in the slaughter of World War I. His life turned upside down by his father’s death in the Civil War, Brown was deeply committed to an antiwar position.

The now highly unorthodox bishop was shocked by the United States’s entry into the war in 1917, and the endorsement of this step by all but one of his fellow Episcopalian bishops. Previously little interested in politics, he was drawn into the controversy over US participation in the conflict.

He discovered that socialists had a convincing explanation for that war, as a consequence of capitalism. Brown’s considerable energy and organizational talents, untapped since leaving the South, found a new outlet.

He joined the Socialist Party and set up a branch in Galion. Against the background of his own childhood poverty and the war, Marxism made sense. “Darwin was now my Old Testament, Marx my New.”

The war, the huge class struggles which ended and followed it, and the Russian Revolution shook up the societies involved, including their churches and workers’ movements. These factors, as they had before and have subsequently, won not only workers to revolutionary Marxist politics, but also middle-class intellectuals far more effectively than attempts at broader appeal by watering those politics down.

Failing to deliver on its promises of radical social change after the war, the SPD, as Henryk Grossman pointed out in his long dictionary entry on “Christian and religious socialism,” “promoted the religious hopes of the disappointed masses.”

On the other hand, reform-minded Lutherans, now that their church was no longer integrated with the state, were attracted to Social Democracy. During the 1920s, it was the main party of government, in coalitions with bourgeois parties federally, and even more so in Germany’s largest state, Prussia. At the end of 1929, roughly 150 Protestant pastors were active in the social-democratic camp.

The German Catholic priest Wilhelm Hohoff was already favorably disposed to socialism and Marx’s economic analysis before the war. In 1921, he argued, “The views and doctrines of the great fathers of the Church are as close to the doctrines of Marx’s Capital as they could be.” “Class struggle,” though without class hatred, “is . . . absolutely necessary.”

During this period, there was also an organized Catholic current, headed by the “little” Otto Bauer (not to be confused with the party leader of the same name), associated with Austrian Social Democracy.

The association between Christianity and communism between the world wars was much more limited. Arguments that particular doctrines and ceremonies had symbolic rather than literal significance were no innovation among Anglicans. But, with his discovery in 1917 that he “had spent a long, strenuous, and open-handed ministry in preaching lies” and embrace of Marxism as the scientific understanding of society, Brown moved beyond the bounds of theological and political respectability in the church.

Inspired by the Russian Revolution, he like many other Socialist Party members with secular backgrounds became a Communist supporter. The result was Christianism and Communism.

The book was a repudiation of organized religion in general in favor of Marxist socialism, because they are “utter incompatibilities.”

The irreconcilable incompatibility of Christian socialism and Marxian socialism is due to the fact that, whereas the Christian is essentially imperialistic in its character, the Marxian is as essentially democratic.

Another of the contrasts Brown drew was that “Marx exhorts the slave class to look to itself for deliverance — [orthodox Christianity’s] Jesus taught it to look to a God for this.”

Religion is only acceptable if it is understood symbolically:

Gods in the skies (Jesus, Jehovah, Allah, Buddha) are all right as subjective symbols of human potentialities and attributes and of natural laws, even as the Stars and Stripes on a pole, Uncle Sam in the capitol and Santa Claus in a sleigh are all right as such symbols; but such gods are all wrong, if regarded as objective realities existing independently of those who created them as divinities and placed them in celestial habitations.

Nor did Brown’s biblical allusions leave any doubts about the radicalism or working-class orientation of his politics:

Revolutionary socialism or communism is the Good Samaritan of the despoiled and wounded laborer. The reformatory kinds of socialism are so many priests and Levites who pass by on the other side.

There is no trace of his earlier, appalling racism in Brown’s Christianism and Communism, which refers only to the “human race.” In the first of his series of pamphlets during the 1930s, The American Race Problem, he admitted that in The Crucial Race Question his “position was so unsound.” The pamphlet included the planks of the Communist Party of the United States’s 1929 platform demanding the end of the oppression of the “Negro race.”

Episcopalian conservatives indicted Brown for heresy, part of a broader campaign against “modernists.” Time identified him as “Bad Bishop Brown.” The New York Times ran front-page stories about the church trial. He became a celebrity.

The court stacked against him, Brown was convicted of heresy. A few months before his final appeal was rejected at the church’s General Convention in October 1925, he was consecrated as a “wandering bishop,” in an “Old Catholic” sect. He believed that the authority of this status, which should be legitimate, he thought, even in the eyes of those with faith in apostolic succession, would help him as he proselytized for Communism and his idiosyncratic theological views. This he did through lectures to Communist organizations and in publications, including the pamphlet series “Heresy: ‘Bad Bishop Brown’s’ Quarterly Lectures.”

He died in 1937 and bequeathed resources to a trust for the promotion of communism “as propagated by Karl Marx.” Brown’s trajectory is just one example of how religious people, many without abandoning religion, have been won to a Marxism whose revolutionary content was intact. He was distinctive only because he completely rejected the supernatural and embraced historical materialism while still reveling in his clerical title.