Was Father Field a Christian Socialist?
by the Revd Robert Rea
FR FIELD: HIS LIFE AND WORK
Charles Neale Field was born on July 10, 1849, the son of the Rev John Field, a prison reformer. (11) It was Mr Field who built the model jail at Reading, and served for a number of years as its chaplain. It was at Reading that Fr Field was born, while his father was serving as chaplain. In 1869, at the age of twenty, he graduated from University College, Durham. Although he originally intended to enter a Guards Regiment, after a visit to London where he saw the need for workers in the Church, he studied Theology at Cuddeston, took Holy Orders in 1872, and was appointed assistant priest at St Mary's, Plympton, Devonshire.
It was at Plympton that the eventual shape of Fr Field's ministry began to show itself. First of all, he showed himself interested in working men and boys. He was a tireless home visitor, and founder of reading rooms and clubs for boys. He played billiards with them and generally lost, and put the penny in the box, to their great satisfaction. His saying was, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," and so he gave his attention to providing recreation for working men and boys.(12) The second aspect of his ministry to show itself in Plympton was his interest in black folk. His sister writes after his death, "Coloured people always won his heart. In the days when he was a curate at Plympton, he had a forlorn little black boy constantly with him, as rather looked down on by the other boys."(13) His concern for the poor also appears at this stage of his career. He was known for never flattering the rich, nor avoiding preaching against their selfishness. He appears, furthermore, to have preached with some power. After a sermon on the rich man and Lazarus, the richest lady in the parish where he was visiting was carried out in a fainting condition, and the rector so agitated that he forgot to give the benediction. The local sailors, on the other hand, greeted him next day with great enthusiasm and gave him free passage on their boats.(14) An aspect worth noting in Plympton is the opposition to the Anglo-Catholicism of the new clergy of the parish, who aimed to live together in a Clergy House. Rumors of Romanism were rife, and the Parish incensed. Eventually the new clergy won the approval and even love of the Parish. They did so precisely because they went to the poor and those previously neglected by a thoroughly middle-class and bourgeois clergy, who had only ministered to the better classes, and spent their time in the pursuits of the gentry, such as hunting, rather then in the work of the Parish. So from the beginning of his ministry, Fr Field's work was shaped by conflict in the Church.
In 1876, he joined the Society of St John the Evangelist and moved to Cowley, near Oxford. Professed in 1880, he was sent out in 1882 to mission territory, Philadelphia, in the United States of America, and ministered for nine years at St Clement's Church there. While at St Clement's, he founded the Guild of the Iron Cross. This was a devotional and social organization for working men and boys, devoted to the fight against intemperance, blasphemy and impurity. This Guild became for a while a widespread influence in the American Church; at one point there were over a hundred wards, and over a hundred clergymen associated with it. In Philadelphia, the Guild was a recreational as well as religious association. For instance, he established the Iron Cross Parlor and Gymnasium, which was opened on New Year's Day, 1889. Many was the time that Fr Field took large groups of boys and men for outings at various parks and places in the country. These activities led him to campaign for the Saturday half-holiday so that the men and boys would have time for this and other sorts of recreation. It was while he was a Philadelphia that the great flood at Johnstown occurred, and he immediately volunteered to go out with the Red Cross detachment as Chaplain. There he simply pitched in to do the work of burial and visitation and every other form of relief he could pitch into. At one point he volunteered to adopt and take back with him to Philadelphia all the orphaned children wandering the muddy morass. Luckily he was not taken up in this. (15)
It is worth noting that St Clement's was another place of strife over Anglo-Catholicism. In the 1870's, before Fr Field arrived, there had been a protracted battle between the parish, who wanted the Anglo-Catholicism of the men from the Society of St John the Evangelist, and the Bishop who consistently sought to inhibit practices which he considered inappropriate, such as daily Eucharists and the hearing of confessions. Eventually the parish won out, but it required a deal of work for the Society of St John the Evangelist and St Clement's to become accepted in their ecclesiastical world. They did eventually become accepted as can be seen from a letter from Fr Field to his Superior reporting a reception held by the Bishop at which he and the other were lionized and introduced all round. Fr Field says he doesn't know what is more dangerous, opposition or acceptance, but he thinks it is acceptance. He fears becoming fashionable. (16)
In 1891, against strong opposition in the parish, the Society of St John the Evangelist withdrew from St Clement's in order to bolster their main work, that in Boston. Fr Field then moved to the Mission Church of St John the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street in Boston, the American headquarters of the Society of St John the Evangelist. There he took up a work which others were soon to lay down. In 1884 a Sunday School for negroes had been opened on Phillips Street on Beacon Hill, most of the teachers being black folk from the Church of St John the Evangelist. This came to be known as St Augustine's Mission. In 1892, a new church was opened for the congregation which had developed. In the meantime, the Fathers most responsible for its development left the work, Fr Arthur Hall to return to England after being displaced as American Superior, and Fr Charles Henry Brent and one other who resigned in protest and undertook the work of St Stephen's Church in the South End. Brent went on to become a Bishop, as did Hall, and eventually was one of the founders of the modern Ecumenical Movement. This, then, was the work which Fr Field took up. And took up with great love for black folk. Again and again in his letters to his Superior, he refers to them as "my dear blacks."
It was for his work with black folk that Fr Field became well known. Fr Osborne, in a letter printed in the Cowley Evangelist, reports meeting President Theodore Roosevelt and the President's saying "The work that you Fathers are doing for (the colored people) is what is needed. They must be educated and raised up; they must have a fair chance given to them."(17) Fr Field had met Roosevelt when Field had gone temporarily as a chaplain to the Rough Rider wounded at Montauk in 1898. There are also letters in the Society of St John the Evangelist Archives from Booker T Washington, showing that Fr Field was known to him and had visited Tuskegee at least once. On March 16, 1907, the Boston Evening Transcript was to say:
Is there a white man in the city who carries on his heart the problems and needs of the colored population to the degree that Fr Field does? He not only thinks about them, but for a dozen years or more he has been tramping up and down the streets of the West and the South End, going into their homes, becoming personally acquainted with hundreds, until now he is looked upon as a father indeed, to whom they can pour out their woes and from whom they are sure of receiving sympathy and the right sort of aid. The Society of St John the Evangelist, of which he is a conspicuous member, and the Sisters of S. Margaret, have been largely responsible, thus far for carrying on this special work for Blacks at one centre in the West End and two in the South;(18)
This work with black folk, of course, was in addition to all the work of St. John's Parish. On top of all this, in 1900, he bought a tract of one hundred and twenty acres of forest, farm land and swamp at Foxboro. This he named St Augustine's Farm for Coloured Children. Here he was able to begin again his country excursions for children. The Farm functioned for many years as a sort of fresh air retreat for black children from Boston. In addition to this Fr Field took in a number of orphaned black children and set them up in year-round residence there. In October of 1903 Fr Field reports that he had eleven orphans and a twelfth on the way which was all that the Farm could handle for the winter.(19) The Cowley Evangelist, the newsletter of the Society of St John the Evangelist in England, reports on his work fairly often. In the February 1904 issue, for instance, it reprints excerpts from a newspaper article about St Augustine's Farm.(20) Fr Field helped support the farm by painting massive numbers of watercolors to be sold and the proceeds to go to the Farm. There remain several sketch books and folders of his sketches and paintings in the Society of St John the Evangelist archives. One must think that he never had an idle moment, but in a letter to his Superior he describes these as "what I do when I ought to be asleep." (21) This work continues today in altered form as Camp St Augustine, a summer camp for boys, still run by the Society of St John the Evangelist, and aimed as much as possible for inner-city boys.
Fr Field was also active in social causes. For instance, a letter from Fr Benson shows him holding a meeting on March 22, 1893 for the improvement of the
"coloured district. God has greatly prospered his work in that district." In a later letter, he reports: Fr Field has really initiated a wonderful movement round St Augustine's. I inclose you the report of a meeting held last week. Several of the most influential monied laymen are becoming really interested in the improvement of the locality, so that I hope several buildings will spring up, which are very much needed in order to make the Church what it ought to be, and St Monica's Home upon an enlarged scale will be a centre of living power if his plans can be carried out.(22)
And in a further letter, he says
"Fr Field is specially interested in the pulling down of many tenement houses on the shady side of Beacon Hill, with a view to making transit through life not quite so rapid. I hope he will be able to carry out various sanitary improvements and moral rearrangements amongst the coloured folk."(23)
One effect of his interest in housing led indirectly to one change in American life. A young woman from an Episcopalian family who was a student at Boston University, which at that time was on Beacon Hill, became interested in the situation of the poor black folk on the "other side of the Hill," and under the tutelage of the Fathers set out in a career of visiting and caring for the poor. This was Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch. She was Fr Field's organist for the Saturday children's service at St Augustine's while she was teaching Latin at Somerville High School and then studying economics and sociology at Radcliffe. Mrs Simkhovitch says, "Under Fr Field's direction, I began to visit families in the West End of Boston." (24) She also reminisces,
Fr Field was greatly loved by all on the "other side" of Beacon Hill, and he knew his families well.I shared in this work and soon the drama of lives shut in by poverty, prejudice and lack of opportunity became my major interest. (25)
Mrs Simkhovitch went on to found Greenwich House, one of the early settlement Houses. Thus it would appear that Fr Field started one of the founders of social work in her career. Her estimate of Fr Field's work was this:
In and out of the wretched little houses in the back streets and alleys he went day by day until he became steeped with the drama, the needs and the possibilities of the colored race. Christianity was to him perfectly simple and the only practical way of life....He never saw the colored people as a "problem." They were just people--God's children....Father Field's leadership in bringing to the attention of the public the scandalous condition of the tenements where the colored people lived, his securing of a good public library for the neighborhood, his pioneer trade schools for colored boys were all an integral outgrowth of his Christianity.(26)
It may be no surprise, then, that it was Mrs Simkhovitch who, through her former pupil at Greenwich House, Frances Perkins, influenced Harold Ickes to include public housing for the poor on the agenda of the Public Works Adminstration in the New Deal. Mrs Simkhovitch was appointed to the Advisory Board of the PWA.(27) Mrs Simkhovitch and Fr Field remained friends as long as he lived. He would come to see her at Greenwich House when he was in New York. She describes him as "a benediction to us and to this house (whose workshops of children he liked so much)."(28)
As Mrs Simkhovitch notes, Fr Field was also instrumental in securing a public library in an unused church building on Cambridge Street for the West End where his beloved blacks lived. There is in the Society of St John the Evangelist Archives an account of how he manipulated the Mayor of Boston into this by starting a neighborhood newspaper and then taking the clippings to the Mayor as proof of public demand for the library he wanted to start. He even got the Mayor to quadruple the amount of money to start the library. As the son of a prison reformer and chaplain, Fr Field was interested in the welfare of prisoners and prison reform. In 1895, after a visit to the Boston jail, he and others wrote letters to the Boston Transcript against the barbaric keeping of prisoners in solitary confinement without any light or any bed. He writes that British prisons had abandoned this kind of treatment. He wrote to prison officials in Britain and in Pennsylvania and then prepared testimony for the Committee on Prisons of the Legislature.(29) In 1920, we find that he was the President of the Board of the John Howard Industrial Home for Discharged Prisoners and active in a movement to use the Home as a place for parole of those who could not furnish bail. In addition to all this the records of the Society of St John the Evangelist show Fr Field travelling a great deal to preach and give Missions. He became a great friend of Dr Coit, the founder of St Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. He was back and forth there very often. He also travelled a great deal to mission churches in the Adirondacks.
Fr Field appears to have been nigh indefatigable. Fr Spence Burton recalls:
During that first year of my ministry, 1907-8, Father Field had going simultaneously three churches for colored people--St Augustine's, Phillips Street, St Martin's, Lenox Street, and St Michael's, Bradford Street. Life in those days here was like a threeringed circus, with St Augustine's Farm as the sideshow. What a circus it was, with Father Field performing in all the rings, running the sideshow entirely by himself and telling each of us to do something different every time we met him. The confusion would have been unbearable if he had not loved us and all to whom we were sent to minister.(30)
It must be noted that at St John's, Fr Field was again in a situation of church conflict. Again here as elsewhere it was a question of the embattled Anglo-Catholic, and in Massachusetts the problem was more severe because the animus against it was greater. I suppose, though I do not know, that this was part of the Puritan and then Unitarian heritage of Bostonian Churchmanship. At any rate, the Society of St John the Evangelist had come to Boston originally to take the Church of the Advent, an Anglo-Catholic stronghold. This parish had by the time of their coming already suffered major opposition from the Bishop, Manton Eastburn, who seems to have been an unbending man. Eastburn refused to visit the Advent to confirm because they used religious practices which he judged unacceptable. Some of these practices were the use of cross and candles on the altar, and kneeling facing the altar instead of into one's chair. It was actions like Eastburn's that led the Episcopal Church to state in its canons that a Bishop must visit a church to confirm once in every three years. When Benson and his sons arrived to take the Advent, Eastburn refused to license any of the Englishmen to officiate in his diocese, and Benson had to send to England for two Americans who had joined the community to come over and be the official clergy. Eventually the Fathers made their way into the hearts and lives of the local Episcopal Church. Fr Hall was elected to the Standing Committee in the early 1890's. But the official opposition never entirely ceased. There was a diocesan canon stating that no more then nine members of the Society of St John the Evangelist could be canonically resident, which is to say, be able to vote in the Diocesan Convention, in the Diocese at a time. This seems to have been out of fear of some sort of takeover by Cowley Fathers. This prohibition was not removed until the time of the late Bp Anson Stokes, who became Diocesan in 1956. Today at last the animus seems permanently ended.(31)
Fr Field's effect on people seems to have been marvelous, and sometimes miraculous. Sr Irene Augustine of the Community of the Transfiguration writes of a Mr Hogarth, a descendant of the painter, who was a "dipsomaniac," who found his way to Boston, and was living in a rooming house run by a Churchwoman. When Mr Hogarth became very ill, his landlady asked him if he would not like one of the Fathers from St John's to be sent for. He agreed and Fr Field came and prayed with him and prepared him for Confirmation. After he was confirmed, he got somewhat better and returned to his sister who kept a home for the blind on Long Island. Mr Hogarth never touched a drop again. (32)
Fr Field became a well known and trusted figure in the Boston of his day. Fr Frederick Gross, who was the Vicar of the Church of St Augustine and St Martin, reports stories of boys being arrested and the courts releasing them into the custody of Fr Field. In fact, it became a practice to claim that you were one of Fr Field's boys so that you could get released rather than sent to jail. Fr Gross also reports that he accompanied a boy to the Juvenile Court, and that the judge spotted him in clericals and asked him into his chambers, where he asked him if he were a Cowley Father. When he said that he was, the judge said he remembered Fr Field, and what a great men he was, and subsequently remanded the boy to the Probation Officer rather than sending him to prison.
I say that Fr Field's effect could be miraculous because of two letters to his Superior. In a letter dated March 8, 1898, Fr Field writes:
You remember about the power of "touch." I have found out the intense danger of it and have been only just saved from a terrible fall.
The power developed in such a way that several people came in a day to be healed and it seemed to me that I was doing God's work for them and to them and perhaps it was - at any rate all the good came from Him but the exercise of it seemed to create a desire to administer it for the sake of its effects and for my own satisfaction and gratification. Then I found myself gradually sliding into the exercise of hypnotizing persons for the relief of their pain but to my own great danger and perhaps to theirs.
You do not and probably cannot tell what a terrible temptation this is and has been but I want earnestly to ask your prayers and those of Fr Congreve.
It is this temptation to relieve pain in others when I see it and almost feel it by a method which I seem to obtain at great risk to nervous and moral power. It is a most insidious and subtle temptation against which I would warn anyone and yet the power seemed almost miraculous.
You will both help me I know to keep my resolution to put away this temptation entirely and pray for my forgiveness so far as I have sinned and thank God for letting me see its awefulness.
In another letter dated July 24, but which does not specify the year, so that it is impossible to tell which letter came first, he says:
I have had another curious instance of the power of touch, but hardly like to mention these things (1) because they are so very unscientific (2) because I seem the last sort of person that God would be likely to use for any extraordinary purpose (3) because I am afraid that if I should ever think that there was any remarkable power in me God would let me fall into some horrible sin of impurity, of which I have always had the greatest fear.
I mention this now so that you may know how I feel about it and know that I do not believe that I have any power but simply often cannot explain the curious facts which follow. A young person came to me and told me of a terrible pain and swelling in her face and neck. I believe that it was scrofulous. She knelt down and I blessed her and touched the place. For ten minutes she felt a violent pain and burning and then all disappeared and she is well. After being laid up for several weeks with it, this curious disappearance was strange. I do not want to explain it and I feel almost ashamed of saying anything about it. It may be a strange coincidence - or a curious physiological fact and if I were only what I ought to be, I could believe that it were some strange manifestation of God's power but what I cannot believe is that He would use such a bad vile instrument as I am.Alas, when I look into my mind, I see nothing there but the vision of Ezekiel through the hole in the wall. It is bad enough like St Paul to have to drag about a dead body but I have an unclean mind and have always an almost superstitious fear that I shall someday commit some horrible sin. I could believe myself guilty of any sin; but that God could use anything so filthy for any wonderful work of healing does surpass my powers of belief, and yet in hospitals and sickrooms He does use one in a very curious way.
Whatever one may think about Fr Field's decision not to heal in this way, and whatever one may think about his grounds for so deciding, it seems clear what the source of his power and love was. It did not lie in any theology applied to his work, but in a real sanctity in his being that enabled him to minister in ways that seemed beyond possibility to him and in part at least even to us today.
Love was the law of his life, it would seem. He was generous to a fault, in one instance literally so. The Rule of Life of the Society of St John the Evangelist in Fr Field's time forbade members from riding with or speaking to women in public conveyances. Sr Rachel Hosmer OSH reports that when she was a teenager living in Sharon, she met Fr Field on the train on his way to Foxboro and sat with him, and that he was very kind and polite to her. She only realized later that she had led him to break the rule and that he ought to have excused himself as politely as possible and sat elsewhere.(33) This is all the more interesting in that his attitude to women was not entirely positive. Some of his letters show this. Of a mission he was giving in which he sought to convict of sin, he says that the people were open to this,
at least the men-I cannot say as much for the women. When the moral sense of a woman is gone, her case seems far more difficult to touch than that of a man. I think that I should like to give missions to 'men only.' Women are some of them very good and at Christmas time one ought to especially remember the gift given to us through them, but in truth they are a constant source of most trying mortification. They are so not directly to me here as indirectly. They take up so much of Fr Maturin's time that they really seem to claim a monopoly of his attention."(34)
In an undated letter from Boston to the Superior, he writes about requesting to go out to the troops in Manila. He asks to go and says,
It would be splendid to have nothing but men to deal with for a whole year--not that I wish to disparage the women, as some do, they are wonderfully good but very numerous. Fr Osborne is raking them in here but he will never attract men.
Clearly the kindest thing we could say is that he had a vocation to work with men and boys. His efforts show that clearly. But he also was very uncomfortable with women, it would seem. None the less he worked well and often with them, and made friends and admirers of them, as the witness of Mrs Simkhovitch and Sr Rachel will show. It must also be clear that this will have cost him some considerable effort. Again it is the power of love at work in him.
It will be clear from this examination that if Fr Field had a theology of his own, we never see it. But there are two other approaches to the theology behind his work which we can take. First, Fr Field was a member of the Society of St John the Evangelist, and therefore a loyal son and disciple of the Founder, Richard Meux Benson. We can examine the origins of the Society of St John the Evangelist and the teachings of Fr Benson to find a theology for Fr Field's work. We can also examine material which Fr Field distributed and originated in his work. There are two segments to this, the material of the Guild of the Iron Cross, and the two mystery plays which Fr Field composed for the children of St Augustine's Church.
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