Was Father Field a Christian Socialist?
by the Revd Robert Rea
THE INTENTION OF FR FIELD'S WORK
We can also search for Fr Field's intentions among his work. Two of these leave extant evidence, the Guild of the Iron Cross and the two mystery plays, for Christmas and Easter, which he wrote for his black children in Boston.
The Guild of the Iron Cross was originally formed by Fr Field at St Clement's, Philadelphia, by July 27, 1883, as there is a postal card on that date to Fr Maturin in Oxford stating "We had another meeting of the Iron Cross last night (50 present) Subject: 'Vice and how to overcome it.'" In an earlier, undated letter to Fr Benson, Fr Field writes of his plan for the Iron Cross,
I am hoping to do a good deal of work among working men during the summer and have a meeting of them on Thursday evening to consider the formation of a 'Guild of the Iron Cross'--a sort of crusade against Blasphemy, Impurity and Intemperance among working men themselves.
In another letter to Fr Benson, dated August 14th, he writes The Title of the Guild was suggested by one of your meditations given to us on the 2nd Psalm, "Thou shalt bruise them with a rod of iron" and by the hymn
Thy Kingdom come, O God
Thy reign on earth begin
Break with thine iron rod
The tyrannies of sin.
We have adopted this as the Office Hymn of the Guild and hope that it may come true in many souls now bound in misery of sin.
In a later letter, not dated by year but written from Philadelphia, Fr Field says that the Guild "is quietly spreading out over the country." Later in the letter he reports that there were now 111 priests attached. He expresses the hope that he can gather them together in retreat around the question, "Are we by our lives and teachings preaching the gospel to the poor?" He adds that an honest answer would be a deadly blow to our Pharisaical pride. He also hopes through the Guild that some men may come to join the Society of St John the Evangelist.
Members of the Guild pledged themselves to resist
the sin of intemperance and use my influence to prevent the commission of this sin by others....the sin of blasphemy, to honor God's name, and bless my fellow-men...to resist the sin of impurity in thought, word and deed, and to use my influence to draw others from evil talking and immoral living.
The Guild manual comments that its object is resistance to sin and these three sins are very prevalent. Of temperance, the Manual makes it clear that this is not abstinence, but is resistance to abuse of wine and strong drink. By blasphemy is meant "all profanity, and especially dishonor to the Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Of impurity is said:
the members of the Guild will carefully abstain from light and impure conversation, and will by silence or censure show their disgust at any such conversation in their presence. They will strive to promote purity of life and manners, plainly declaring their opinion, when called upon, as to the wickedness of immorality, divorce, impurity, all forms of abortion, etc., and will resolutely set their face against the improper use of women, whether married or single.
The Manual also adds that they are to protect women from degradation, and discourage jests, conversation and behavior degrading to women. While this may sound sexist to us, it seems meant to better the position of women in the working class social milieu. The manual also says that members will "maintain the equal obligation of the law of purity on men and women alike." This is clearly an attack on the well-known double standard.
Membership was open to men and boys "who work for their living," and are baptized and take the Guild pledge. Men who do not work but are "in sympathy with workingmen, and wish to promote the welfare and spread of the Society" may become Honorary Members. Priests Associate are to pray and celebrate Holy Communion monthly for "the sanctification of manual labor" and "the spread of the doctrines of the Holy Catholic Church among working men and boys," among other things. Clearly there is here an interest in the working class on the part of Fr Field. The songbook of the Guild bears this out. It contains "Our Lord, He Was A Carpenter," and "Hurrah For the Men Who Work," which was written by Fr Field's friend, Alfred G Mortimer, Longfellow's "Village Blacksmith," and "Work, For the Night is Coming."
The Office Hymn of the Guild will also bear some examination. It is primarily a call for the coming of the Kingdom, and a new world of "peace, and purity, and love," when "war shall be no more," nor "lust, oppression, crime." As such it betrays a certain level of social consciousness. In its longing for the kingdom, it follows the Bensonian theology, and if any socialism, Maurician, rather than the contemporary socialism of Bliss.
The other outstanding note of the songbook is the sense of crusade. Fr Field in writing of his founding of the Guild calls it "a sort of crusade," and this is central to an understanding of what Fr Field thought he was doing. Anglo-Catholicism was the working out in deed of the theology of the Oxford Movement. This in turn was a revival of a sense of the community of the Church, of the Church as the Body of Christ, in a time when the social order had been broken down by industrialization and secularization . The Anglo-Catholics looked to a time in the history of the Church when it was still an organic whole with its culture, namely the Middle Ages. So we see the Gothic Revival as the preferred architectural style of the Movement and Anglo-Catholicism. So it should not surprise us to see in the songbook of the Guild, Crusader's Hymns and crusading hymns, for the Guild was a crusading movement among the working class. Indeed, it attempted to inculcate what we today might criticized as unthinkingly middle class values. Seeing this, however, we may also see that it was also an attempt to bring in the working classes, which is to say, to restore human unity. Also, it may be unfair to expect Fr Field to see what we see. Furthermore, the style of which Fr Field is an example has won out; the working classes have taken up overwhelmingly middle class behavior, for the most part, and we who would criticize this are still a small minority. (58)
The Easter and Christmas plays bear out the argument of Fr Field's wanting to return to olden days in the name of an unbroken humankind. They are attempts to reproduce the plays of the middle ages using "medieval" carols, some of which are really old carols and others of which are Gothic Revival, that is, imitation, carols. Fr Field has added to these a cast of characters who narrate the mystery to be taught in recitatives which simply rephrase the biblical narration and embellish it in devotional ways. They do not teach us of any intent of Fr Field except the intent to teach the Catholic faith to his beloved black children, to draw them into the body of the faithful, for that is clearly his intent. The thought of them is charming. Mrs Simkhovitch remembers "the black Virgin" (59) and other observers remember the black Virgin and Child.
This intent of his, to draw his "dear blacks" into the Church and into the Kingdom, for him they were the same, is clear from some articles which appear in The Messenger, the newsletter of the Church of St John the Evangelist, when Fr Field was Superior of the Society of St John the Evangelist in America. It is also clear that the intent was denominational. He says that getting the new Church of St Augustine and St Martin paid for
is the great missionary work of the Society of St John the Evangelist in Boston, and must come first in our missionary endeavors. There are hundreds of members of our church coming every year from the West Indies, and if their souls are not provided for and tended they will slip into the ranks of the Baptist, Methodists and other denominations, and be lost to their true mother the Holy Catholic Church. (60)
It is also clear that Fr Field had some intra-denominational problem, for his articles in The Messenger at this time have a certain defensive tone. He says,
There has been some opposition to the work on account of our teaching, but the fruits of the teaching can be found in every part of Boston. The doctrine and discipline of the Holy Catholic Church in all its fullness and purity are needed and appreciated by the colored people, as much as by any of the members of the Church. (61)
And he has to defend his work as being pointedly and primarily religious in nature:
SOCIAL WORK AMONG THE POOR. The question has been asked us whether we approve of social work,--institutional work as it is now called. Obviously the answer is that we do. That is what we would like to carry on, especially at the South End, in our new St Martin's when it is built....The only thing that holds us back here is lack of money. If anyone would give us money with which to build a club-house, a billiard-room, and a gymnasium and a swimming-tank and a reading-room, how gladly we would accept it! But when we have not enough money to build a parish house and a Church, when our funds are so small, and when we have to beg even for that little, we build the Church first. In much of the modern settlement and social and institutional work there seems to be a peril that arises from concealing dogmatic enthusiasms. It would be better and more business-like if people frankly admitted their violent, primary and theological preferences. Instead of pretending to act merely as citizens, we think it is better that we should come out frankly as complete Catholics or beautifully-rounded Methodists. We do not wish to invent worldly reasons for supporting celestial aims. We who love the Bible do not try to persuade people to read it because it is literature; but because it is religion. The old-fashioned hypocrite...was a man whose outside was that of the devotee, but whose inside was that of the worldling. We now have the hypocrite turned inside out. His outside is the man of the world, his inside is the religious enthusiast....Faith has not vanished like a dream. Faith is hidden like a sin. Religion is not now the mask: religion is the guilty secret which must never be alluded to. The wisdom of mankind always insisted very truly in the case of the old hypocrite, that his sensuality through being hidden grew worse than ordinary sensuality,--passion stagnated into poison....we fear the same thing may happen with the suppressed religious bias of many good people. By being shamed of our enthusiasms for Christ, by never alluding to the Sacraments on which we ourselves feed, by never trying to draw those we teach to prayer, which is the very life of our own soul, by acting as if we were ashamed of our own religion, we almost make it something to be ashamed of. There is a risk of its rotting and degenerating in the soul or cell where we have sealed it up. In that darkness and silence virtue itself may become almost a vice. We wish to build a Church at the South End for colored people...We wish to put up this Church because the Catholic Religion is a secret so good that we feel we have to tell it. (62)
This admittedly long quotation is the only piece of theological reflection of any length to come from Fr Field. It reveals his character as a plain speaker, a man who was not ashamed nor hesitant to speak his mind. Reportedly, one Sunday at St Augustine's he received the offering, looked down at the plate, and said, "Pennies, pennies, pennies. You certainly don't love the Lord today." (63)
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