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Untitled letter sent by Presiding Bishop Alfred Lee to Henry Codman Potter, Bishop of New York, regarding Potter's Admission of James Otis Sargent Huntington to a Religious Order.

No place: no publisher, c. 1884.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2009

The following letters will explain themselves. They are sent, not to invite any expression of opinion in regard to the act to which they refer, but simply to indicate the entire readiness of the undersigned to submit his action in a matter which he regards as involving a question of expediency, to the judgment of his fathers and brethren in the episcopate. H. C. P.


WILMINGTON, DEL., Dec. 11, 1884.

MY DEAR BISHOP POTTER: I take the liberty of a brother bishop to express to you, with the utmost respect and affection, but with plainness and candor, the astonishment and distress occasioned by your recent unexampled act, the admission of Mr. Huntington to a so-called religious order, after requiring of him the well-known Romish monastic vows.

When first mentioned, I discredited the report. Upon reading the published account I find the ceremony, with the language used, even more objectionable than had been represented. In that service not only the whole monastic system was sanctioned by you, in your official character, but attributed to divine inspiration, the solemn language of our Ordinal being adopted. This system is no untried experiment. It has been on trial for hundreds of years, and with whatever of sincerity and zeal started under different forms, the fruits have been evil and pernicious. It was utterly repudiated by the Church of England at the Reformation, and has been since rejected with loathing by several Roman Catholic countries. Sacerdotal celibacy has a history of shame, suffering, and sin traced in indelible character. The corrupt morals of the priesthood where Romanism is in the ascendant is a notorious fact, and frightful comment on the attempt to override God's laws, and to set up a purer standard than Holy Scripture. No attempt, however specious, to introduce the system in our Church can fail to awaken earnest and indignant condemnation.

Now, my dear brother, this is not a matter that concerns simply yourself or your diocese. The whole Church is most deeply concerned, and especially the episcopate. We are one body. The character, reputation, influence, and official acts belong, in a sense, to all.

I will not now remark upon the phraseology employed, so unknown in our formularies, and open to such severe criticism.

But I do entreat and charge you, in the name of God, to pause before any repetition of such an act, and I wish that it might be possible for you in some way to allay the intense anxiety and alarm which will be felt throughout the Church.

In Christian love, your own friend, and your father's friend,

(Signed) ALFRED LEE.


NEW YORK, December 15, 1884.

MY DEAR PRESIDING BISHOP: I have your letter of the 11th, and am sincerely pained to learn from it that any act of mine should have been to you the occasion of alarm and distress.

The ceremony to which you refer was not in more than one particular, such as commended itself to my taste or judgment, but in inferring from it my "sanction of the whole monastic system," you are, I think, reading into it more than is warranted by the facts.

A young man took a vow of celibacy, poverty, and obedience to the rules of the society with which he united himself. It is in substance precisely the same vow that is taken by every woman who joins a sisterhood. Her obligations bind her to poverty, to a single life, and to obedience to the rules of the sisterhood. But sisterhoods have received the implicit if not explicit recognition and sanction of the Church in its highest missionary and legislative councils, and are to-day an established part of its machinery of service. I am unable to see that the right of sisterhoods to exist among us does not imply the same right in brotherhoods established for the same purposes.

As to the history of religious orders, I am not ignorant, and as to their possible dangers, I am sure I am not indifferent. That they became corrupt and scandalous during the pre-reformation days is a fact not open to dispute. So did the Church itself. But the Church was reformed, while religious orders in England on the other hand, were destroyed. On the theory that the Reformation was a finality, (which is, I know, the theory, or rather the profound belief of many earnest men), there is no appeal from this action, and there can be, it is assumed, no question as to its wisdom; but I cannot say that, in my judgment, the Reformation was a finality. As to its enormous benefits to the Church and to human society, I am in no doubt at all, and I revere some of its leaders with a profound and grateful homage. But they were men, and the frailties and mistakes of men are seen in even the best things that they did. The iconoclastic spirit of which one may see a characteristic illustration in the west front of Exeter Cathedral, appears in sweeping and wholesale destructions and expulsions other than those connected with material structures. Perhaps the religious orders of that day did not deserve to be spared. Certainly the so-called "contemplative orders," which claimed (as some of their successors still claim), to be known and designated as "the religious," merited scanty forbearance in an age when multitudes were perishing while they themselves were chanting litanies, and spending their days in splendid religious "functions," and over questions of upholstery and embroidery.

But what is the situation in the case of the two young men who have been admitted to the brotherhood to which your letter refers? Here are, first one young man, and then another, who feel profoundly moved by the condition of the godless thousands and tens of thousands who crowd our tenement houses in New York. Do you know, my dear and honored Presiding Bishop, what a tenement house in New York is? Do you know the profound and wide-spread apathy of the Christian community concerning these schools of poverty, misery, and almost inevitable vice? Do you know that our own Church's mission work has, thus far, but touched the fringe of this awful mass of sorrow and sin? All this these young men came to see and know by personal observation and actual contact. And then they said, and said, as I believe, rightly, "If we are to reach these people we must, first of all, live among them. It will not answer to have a home and interests elsewhere, and then to walk over to the mission chapel, and go about among the tenement-house population three or four times a week. If we are to get close to their hearts, we must get close to their lives. And then, too," they said, "if we are to do this work, we must strip, like the gladiator, for the fight. We must be disencumbered of every tie and interest that can hinder or embarrass us. We must be willing to be poor, to live alone, to obey a fixed rule (or regimen) of life, that so we may give ourselves wholly to this work. There was a time when our Master said, 'Carry neither purse nor scrip.' There was a time when His apostle said, 'He that is unmarried careth for the things of the Lord that he may please the Lord;' and again, 'Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves.' There was a time, in a word, when, in a special exigency, men voluntarily took on them the soldier-life and the soldier-rule, turning their backs on home, and gain, and a self-directed life. It is such a time and such an exigency that confront us to-day. We do not want the help of a brotherhood to retreat from the world, merely to coddle our own selfish souls, and call it sainthood; we want a rule and bond that shall bind us to a hard task under sanctions the most august and urgent."

And so they took their vow. I do not see how they can be faulted unless all particular and special vows are wrong. It may be said that their baptismal and ordination vows are enough. But if a clergyman came to you (as, once and again, such a one has come to me) and said, "I am in danger from a tendency to intemperance. I want to take a vow of total abstinence. I want to take it with the most solemn sanctions, in your presence, on my knees, with my hands on the Holy Bible," would you refuse him? Is he not entitled to every such help so long as the thing which he vows is not in itself sinful or inconsistent with his Christian calling? And is poverty inconsistent with the Christian calling? Is the unmarried state? Is obedience to a daily rule of work and prayer? To say that these things may be abused is to say what may be said of the Bible, or the sacraments, or any other means of grace. Prayer or church-going may be so indulged in as to lead to the neglect of daily duties and the most imperative obligations. But such an error is not the danger of our time, nor is poverty, nor the surrender of the privileges and pleasures of married life, nor the surrender of the freedom of one's own way.

And if it is said that such vows are the setting-up of a standard of piety not known to the Church, and the arrogating a superiority over other Christian disciples, it is enough to say, on the one hand that there is no slightest assertion of such superiority, and on the other, that the three-fold rule of this order of men only follows the accepted usage in regard to the three-fold obligations of orders of women. It is, indeed, assumed, I understand, by those who criticize them that the vows to which you refer are irrevocable, and this is regarded as an especial reason for protesting against them. If it were true, it would be. But they are not. I should have declined to administer such vows; and those which I did administer were explicitly acknowledged to be revocable, either at my own discretion or at the request of him who took them.

You conclude by remarking: "This is not a matter which concerns simply yourself or your diocese. The whole Church is most deeply concerned, and especially the episcopate. We are one body. The character, reputation, influence and official acts belong in a sense to all."

I am not quite sure that I understand this language; but if you mean (a) that the administration of a vow to any person who desires to take it is distinctly an "official"--that is, an episcopal--act, then I have only to say that it is competent to any presbyter to administer such vows as you refer to, and that my act was in no sense "episcopal." It was not a confirmation, or ordination, or consecration. It was simply receiving a promise--a vow--solemn and unique, indeed, but so, in a sense, every vow should be.

Or if you mean (b) that any individual act of mine, however unofficial, binds all my brethren, then I can only say that such a position is one which would leave me absolutely without any individual discretion whatever. I went the other day to lend the sanction and encouragement of my presence and voice to the opening of a free library by persons who do not profess even to be Christians, and whose only aim is to provide pure and instructive secular reading for poor people. I presume the great majority of my episcopal brethren would say that I had no business to be there; but if I had supposed or understood that my liberty of action in such a case would have to be surrendered on my being consecrated a bishop, I would have refused the heavy burden which I now bear as involving, not so much a burden, as a bondage not to be endured.

One word more, and I am sure you will not misunderstand it. You subscribe yourself with, I know well, true and tender affection--would that I were worthier of it!--"In Christian love, your own friend and your father's friend." Believe me, my dear Presiding Bishop, you could have conjured by no more potent earthly spell than that! I revere my father's memory as that of the noblest prelate and the wisest man I ever knew. I am not worthy to bear his name, still less his great and holy office. But all that I know of generous and fair dealing with men of various minds and faiths within the Church of God, he taught me. He dreaded the taint of Roman error, and I do. But he believed that things that had been abused were not necessarily evil in themselves. And had he lived on and into the new conditions and sore needs of our day, he would have owned, I think, that an order of men, under obligations in no essential particular different from those of orders of women, might do a John the Baptist's work, in hair shirt and leathern girdle, if need be, crying in the wilderness of a great city's sin, that men should repent and open in their hearts a highway for their Lord! If I did not think that he would have thought so, you may be sure that I would not have done what I have.

And yet I may be mistaken. I may well distrust my own judgment when it conflicts with yours. And I desire to say, therefore, that, in this matter, I shall be entirely ready to submit myself to the wisdom of my fathers and brethren in the episcopate. If they think that I have erred, or have exceeded my authority, I shall not hesitate to advise my young brother that, in administering to him the vows which have been objected to, I am deemed to have transcended my powers, and to have acted unwisely and wrongly, and that, therefore, so far as I am concerned, he is dispensed from their obligation, thenceforth and finally.

But will you forgive me if I add that, in doing so, I shall not surrender my own judgment as to the expediency and propriety of my action, until convinced by arguments more sufficient and conclusive than have yet been addressed to me?

And having said this much, will you still further pardon me if I also add that, pressed as I am by my manifold duties, which leave me scant leisure and less taste for controversy, with this letter this correspondence, so far as I am concerned, must close? Having given my reasons for the act which you fault, and having expressed my readiness to submit to the judgment of my fathers and brethren in the episcopate, I must be permitted to turn my face and my thoughts to other tasks and more immediate duties.

I am, my dear Presiding Bishop, with unfeigned respect,

Faithfully yours,


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