The Christian Revolution:Vida Dutton Scudder


About Vida Scudder

Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954), taught English literature at Wellesley for nearly half a century. A communicant of St. Stephen's Church in Boston's South End, she involved herself tirelessly in efforts for social change both inside and outside the Episcopal Church. She was active in the Church of the Carpenter under the leadership of the Christian Socialist priest W. D.P. Bliss (whose congregation included labor leaders, middle class radicals, and a young architect named Ralph Adams Cram whose love of the Gothic, like William Morris's, grew out of protest against the crass commercialism of a bourgeois age), as well as in the Settlement House movement which drew middle-class students and teachers to live in the slums alongside the working poor.

Scudder endured rabid attacks on her in the Boston press when she went to Lawrence to support the textile workers striking under the leadership of the I.W.W. Especially reprehensible to the pious ears of the business community was her statement: "I speak for thousands beside myself when I way that I would rather never again wear a thread of woolen than know my garments had been woven at cost of such misery as I have seen and known past the shadow of a doubt to have existed in this town."

At an early period in her life she was strongly attracted to the Fabians, preaching a kind of gradual "permeation" of socialist ideas and practices within the existing society. Later, under the impetus her own experiences in the labor and settlement house movements, she was to move considerably to the left, "taking out her red card" in the Socialist Party and refusing to shrink from the possible necessity of violent revolution if God's will were to be done on earth, as in heaven. In Socialism and Character she describes herself as "a class-conscious, revolutionary socialist, if you will," and adds "The word socialism, moreover, glows to the writer, not with the delicate rose-pink so pleasantly popular, but with a deep uncompromising red. Be it remembered nevertheless that the hue of blood and flame is the hue for the Feast Days of 'the Lord and Giver of Life,' the Spirit of Pentecost."

A quarter of a century later, she was to write in her autobiography, "I'm afraid that Lenin would have scoffed at my treatment of the red flag given me at this time, which I placed beside the crucifix -- where it still hangs -- in my private oratory . . . I was doing my best to align a catastrophic and dialectical conception of history with my Christian thinking; and in communist revolution I discerned a Divine Judgment which was the sign of approaching redemption . . . But as coercion and cruelty were continuously impounded as means to reach justice and brotherhood, uncritical enthusiasm waned. Helped . . . by Franciscan studies, I became increasingly convinced that no revolution could bring ultimate salvation unless it proceeded from a Christian conception of man."

After her retirement from Wellesley in 1928 until her death in 1954 at the age of 92, as Theresa Corcoran notes:

She continued to be in the storm center of advanced thought in the church and in society, supporting by her name and by her writing such groups as Reinhold Niebuhr's Fellowship of Socialist Christians and Rufus Jones's Wider Quaker Fellowship. She worked closely with the Christendom group in England, encouraged Mother Pattie Ellis in her desire to establish the Community of the Way of the Cross, a women's religious order combining active social work with monastic life, and followed closely the Reverend Frederick Hastings Smyth's Society of the Catholic Commonwealth.

- - Ted M.


from Vida Dutton Scudder's On Journey, c1937

"Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost." There is the final conception to which the Church from Apostolic through sub-Apostolic times was slowly feeling her way. Only in the fullness of time does the Trinitarian formula unfold its synthesis of power. For here is supreme satisfaction for the adoring thought that forever soars wavering in uncertain flight toward the Divine . . . And here is the ground of the Christian social hope. For in that Divine Society where none is afore or after other, is the warrant for the functional civilization based on equality of rank, which it behooves us to establish. The Blessed Trinity is to the Christian the prototype of the social order which man, because he is made in the image of God, is bound to realize. . . The paradoxical conception of the Three-in-One so satisfies our contradictory necessities, alike in worship and in thought, that I can not doubt the guidance within the Church of a Spirit leading us into the whole Truth that sets us free.

Unaware of her own achievement, anxiously preoccupied with clumsy attempts to render the Inexpressible in words, and working through very faulty human instruments, the Church actually forestalled the needs of generations to be, for a Vision of Deity which, conforming to the chief phases of human aspiration, should give the clue to the perfecting of social relations. The democracy, to belief in which I still cling, and which I do not think the world will ever abandon for fascism, finds in Trinitarian faith its correlate and inspiration.


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The Failure of Charity
from Vida Dutton Scudder's Socialism and Character, 1912.

The simple, depressing instincts of pre-democratic, pre-evolutionary days still largely dominate our social creeds and deeds. We talk much of brotherhood: but our democratic faith seldom penetrates below the surface of our theories or actions. Evolutionary language is always on our lips, but we direct our social activities as if change on broad lines were inconceivable, and we condemned helplessly to minister to the end of time, within the limits of a static stratified society, to the same old needs forever being generated by the same old situation. Yet we are growing restive . . . we cannot stay content with helping the individual here and there. Modern times have not abolished the old idea of sanctity, but they have made a distinct addition to it. They put stress on a new "note": efficiency, with which we may be sure none of the older saints ever bothered themselves . . .

And thus the question rose, as to the value and efficiency of those ministries[we] so ardently pursued. Did they meet the situation? Putting mind as well as heart on the matter, could we honestly feel that the indefinite multiplication of such agencies as occupied us, whether these happened to be organized charities, peoples' institutes, soup kitchens or missions, would we ever bring effectual satisfaction to the needs we sought to relieve?

. . . So before the end of the century here were scientific charity, standing for more or less intelligent care of our victims, and sundry attempts at deeper fellowship, ending in that most significant expression of social chivalry, the settlement house movement. Many another constructive activity, instituted and administered by those children of privilege who respond to moral stimuli, began to crystallize. New every morning, fresh every evening, leagues were formed, committees appointed, for fighting salient evils: for protecting childhood, cleansing politics, eliminating disease, for regulating in myriad ways the unbridled passions of self interest and greed that have created our unlovely civilization. That new crusade whose call we had answered gathered its hosts to fight the serried forces of industrial and social wrong; every day new members joined it, -- valiant spirits, happiest of modern men and women, on pilgrimage to the Holy City of social peace.

It was splendid, it was inspiring: it was by all odds the best thing that the modern world had to show. But what did it achieve? What had they done, -- all the laborious committees. Their appeals loaded our breakfast tables, seeking to squeeze a little more reluctant money from those comfortable classes who groaned and gave, and meantimes changed not one iota, whether nominal Christians or not, the source of their incomes or their standards of living. Did the reforms get accomplished? Improvement here and there might be noted in detail. Many individuals lived happier and better lives, thanks to the friendship that reached them. Yet the hard laws of industry went on unchecked, or were checked if at all less by the efforts of enlightened philanthropy than by the outraged self-interest of the general public or the rising demands of the workers. Placed in the balance against the ugly facts of modern civilization, the total results of our philanthropy and our reform made a pretty pitiful show!

* * * * * * *

[T]he brave helpless experiments of philanthropy and reform . . . are inspired in the main by moral passion and social compunction of the purest. But the plain fact is that they have the feebleness of reflex action. They spring, not from life itself, but from the pitying contemplation of life, which is a very different thing. They inspire reverence, they even play an essential minor part in modern life; but we can never look to them for adequate social regeneration.

Take the working girl, for example, and gather up in imagination the total effect of all the benevolent agencies which exist to help her: the girl's club, the settlement, the vacation house, the Associated Charities, if worst comes to worst, and even the Women's Trade-union league. Measure the force of their reaction on her personality in comparison with that of two crude economic facts, -- the wage she receives and the duration of her working day. The world of our eager efforts dwindles both comically and tragically in our eyes, and the broad economic condition bulks out of all proportion as the real master of that woman's life. On the surface, our sympathies may tinker away pleasantly and our charities may afford relief: in the depths, her life will never be affected till the economic factor be altered. Widen the vision, look through history; where can one point to social sacrifice or service on a scale sufficiently large radically to alter the course of events? The answer may be painful; let it at least be honest. The deep, the basal, the creative forces, have in nine times out of ten been rooted in the economic principles of self-interest or class-expediency. Through the indomitable presence of life itself, craving for satisfaction and expansion, and in no other wise, effective advance has been achieved.

Thus we are forced however reluctantly to side with Bakunin and face the truth. Economic necessity is the determining base of permanent social change. The appeal to moral incentive can accomplish splendid work in detail; it can bring blessed help to unnumbered individuals, comforting, inspiring, and achieving once in a while under the most depressing circumstances, miracles of rehabilitation, practical and spiritual. But unaided, it is in the main helpless to compass that decent society we crave, and which to our shame two thousand years of Christianity have failed to realize.


from Vida Dutton Scudder's "Anglican Thought on Property". In Christianity and Property, edited by Joseph F. Fletcher, ©1947

"The poor man hath title to the rich man's goods," says Latimer -- but his inference recalls the Thirty-eighth Article -- "so that the rich man ought to let the poor man have part of his riches to help or comfort him withal."

Here is the long-accredited solution of all our troubles: charity! And Latimer presents it at its best, for, in common with the steady Catholic tradition of preceding centuries, he views it as an obligatory act of justice. The countering of inequities and the relief of poverty by private benevolence was a course that long satisfied the Christian conscience. The solution offered is comforting, but it involves two dangers. Carried far enough, it can, as Saint Francis knew, hold greed in check; but like its twin, the doctrine of stewardship, it involves the more subtle and profound temptation to the use of power. "If the possessioners would consider themselves to be but stuards and not lords over their possessions . . . oppression would soon be reduced, said Robert Crowly [prebendary of St. Paul's]. "But because the sturdy should not oppress the weak and impotent God hath appointed you stuards to give meat unto his household in due season." Charity and stewardship! They have an honorable history, reaching to the vast philanthropies of our modern millionaires; and perhaps the Christian conscience should not be so ungracious as to ask where the money comes from. But that second danger, to esteem oneself lord over one's possessions, grows more and more threatening. The devil, as Denis de Rougement has pointed out, is especially clever at concealing his wiles within our virtues. Is escape from the danger of power, disguised as benevolence, possible for millionaires -- or for nations?


Heralds of Freedom
Vida Scudder, quoted in The Cry for Justice, 1915.

Deeper than all theories, apart from all discussion, the mighty instinct for social justice shapes the hearts that are ready to receive it. The personal types thus created are the harbingers of the victory of the cause of freedom. The heralds of freedom, they are also its martyrs. The delicate vibrations of their consciousness thrill through the larger social self which more stolid people still ignore, and the pain of the world is their own. Not for one instant can they know an undimmed joy in art, in thought, in nature while part of their very life throbs in the hunger of the dispossessed. All this by no virtue, no choice of their own. So were they born: the children of the new age, whom the new intuition governs. In every country, out of every class, they gather: men and women vowed to simplicity of life and to social service; possessed by a force mightier than themselves, over which they have no control; aware of the lack of social harmony in our civilization, restless with pain, perplexity, distress, yet filled with deep inward peace as they obey the imperative claim of a widened consciousness. By active ministry, and yet more by prayer and fast and vigil, they seek to prepare the way for the spiritual democracy on which their souls are set.


[St. Francis] In the Footsteps of St. Francis
from Vida Dutton Scudder's On Journey, c1937

How happy were [the] followers [of Saint Francis], how free! Never was any liberty so complete as the 'liberta francescana.' And -- still more significant -- how unique their value to the very civilization they were attempting to defy! Intimacy with them destroyed two of the commonest assumptions in conservative social theory.

First, the assumption that personality demands private property for self-realization. This, I regret to say, is the orthodox position of the Roman Catholic Church, and I am thankful that I belong to a communion not committed to it. For the friars, who turned away with intense distaste from any hint of ownership, were as vivid people as can be met in history; and they are interesting and individual in proportion to their surrender. Next, the assumption that the hope of gain is a necessary incentive to individual activity and to social progress. I had long considered this assumption to be a damnable lie, for I had seen how irrelevant it was to the history of the arts and sciences. But its comfortable support to capitalist psychology simply crumbled away, confronted by the varied creative fecundity of those men who had eliminated the profit-motive with deliberate contempt. In all that was most progressive during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in art, music, science, social services and in social and political theory the hand of the friars could be traced.

Here indeed was matter for thought, especially in years when the great Russian experiment was proceeding on its uncertain but challenging way. Obvious the difference between that experiment and the passionately spiritual movement of men who were following a voluntary Counsel of Perfection. Yet my mind, always inclined to socialize -- I will not say sublimate -- every personal principle, could not resist applying inferences from Franciscanism, both critical and constructive, to the situation in the modern world . . .

There was that matter of 'Usus' and 'Dominium', for instance: in modern parlance luxury and power-control. Which attendant upon the acquisitive instinct is the worse evil? My friends and I had always been strong on The Simple Life; I don't know how many lectures I had given, how many syllabi prepared on the ethics of consumption . . . But as thought had widened, to perceive the ascetic life of certain great monopolists who were relentlessly crushing their competitors out of existence, and to realize the strangle-hold of high finance on our civilization, emphasis had shifted in my mind. . . I was still concerned over the ethics of consumption. But the greater menace now seemed to me in the power wealth conferred. Even in its finest forms, - - the establishment let us say of philanthropic foundations, or endowment of universities - - I distrusted it. That Power behind the Throne which is the power of money had come to seem the most sinister fact in modern life. Now my thirteenth century friars had known all about the problem; indeed, so had St. Francis, witness his remarks when a good Bishop urged him to hold at least enough private property to ensure respectability. 'My father,' said he, in effect, 'if we had property we should need arms to defend it,' - - quite clearly discerning private ownership as the nursing mother of war . . .

Never for a moment did I doubt the validity of that witness borne to the rejection of private ownership as the only gateway to freedom and to peace. At least, all delusions as to the worth of the profit-motive had been cleared from my mind. But was there nothing to do except to sit still, laughing and weeping over the constant failure of communism, and the defeat of any attempt at rejection of the Proprium to survive in a world like ours?

I was not quite sure; I am not sure yet. But I cling to my perception of the tenacious persistence of the ideal.


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The Christian Revolution
from Vida Dutton Scudder's On Journey, c1937

Vida ScudderThe Christian Revolution! In a world where the old order was dying and a new order cradled in hate strove for the mastery, here was the only hope. Could that revolution be nourished within the Christian Church? So I trusted, so I prayed . . . but let no one think that purpose easy to fulfill. Sadness waits upon it. Comrades within whose eyes glows the vision of a brave new world fall away from the Church one by one, driven to despair of her, not by open persecution but by the deadness of the ecclesiastical atmosphere. I see them go. I mourn. Others, more moderate, wiser it may be - - who am I to judge? - - succumb as the years pass, and insensibly conform to a conventional ecclesiastical pattern. I give thanks for their devoted service within the decorous religious system which the world now despises, now applauds, but never fears. And yet again, I mourn. Worst of all is the burrowing doubt within. And all the time eager unchurched voices call to me. I close my ears.

"Holy St. Catherine, pray for us,
Holy St. Francis, pray for us."
Here is perhaps the best point at which to speak of my present attitude toward social issues. John Henry Newman, having recorded in his 'Apologia' his spiritual pilgrimage, writes a long last chapter, headed: 'Position of my Mind since 1845.' It is a great chapter. It contains some of the most moving passages in English prose. But, as has been pertinently said, the title places Newman apart from the majority of living minds. For how is a fixed 'position' possible? I dare not claim one, especially in social matters, unless it be as I might speak of the position of a migrating bird, poised for an instant on a tree. The bird is sure of its direction, but presently it must resume its flight. I am writing in 1936.

'The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water and breeds reptiles of the mind,' says William Blake. I am as good a socialist as ever, but my socialist thinking becomes increasingly flexible. As I had outgrown the Fabian shibboleths of the last century, so now the Marxian diagnosis which had convinced me for a time, ceased to satisfy me, at least in its more rigid and exclusive form. When I envisage the United States, I can not see the class conflict as a clear-cut issue, nor can I view 'the proletariat' - - a dissolving term - - as a Messianic unit . . .

The task to be achieved seems to me more and more tremendous. The 'gradualism' of a New Deal, so absurdly dubbed socialistic, saddens me more than it cheers. I am tired of hacking at the branch on which I sit; we must destroy the roots of that poisonous Upas Tree, the Profit System, and plant the Tree of Life - - if only we can find its seeds. Has either fascism or communism found them? Between the two, I choose communism. My delight in the vast Russian experiment never wavers, for I do think the seeds of economic life are in its keeping. Nor am I unduly troubled by the atheism over there. I suspect the fresh start they have made is a relief to the Living God, for as Milton says, a man can be 'a heretic in the truth.' and His Name, instead of being hallowed, is all too easily affixed to a dead idol . . . I am too desirous of seeing our conventional religion at home consumed in fiery judgment to worry over atheist Russia.

But I am no political communist. Communism and Fascism are too alike in method for me to approve of either. Short cuts do not pay in the long run.

'Him, only him, the grace of God defends
Whose means are fair and spotless as his ends,'

says Wordsworth of his 'Dion.' I think it is Christopher Dawson who echoes: 'Right means must partake of the nature of their ends.' To deny this is the great mistake of politicians, and sometime idealists, in a hurry. . . I stand behind Christian and American belief in liberty of thought and speech at whatever cost, and I recoil from such deliberate official use of the opposite policy as has prevailed in Russia.

What then about the alliance of Christian radicals with secular revolutionary forces? Shall we form a United Front? Here is a burning issue, and I am all for alliance. Advanced religious thought is now fairly unanimous in denouncing the capitalist order, and such denunciation no longer interests me. Sometimes I think we religious folk move backward; I hear us repeating the patter about patience we used fifty years ago. Yet fifty years count, even in perspective; I observe that the Lord Himself sometimes hastens the tempo, and I think the hour for Christian social action has struck. Am I then told that the Church should then play a lone hand, retiring into the interior whence she may some day emerge bearing an adequate Christian sociology? Nay, I can not leave my house empty lest seven devils should come in; impartiality today is impossible, and I find mandates sufficiently clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Shall I refuse to cooperate because communism aims at mere material ends? This isn't true, as scrutiny of cultural activities in Russia makes plain; moreover, in the newer Marxism spiritual values return and freedom wins recognition once more. True, Christian thinking can never rest in regarding 'God' as 'the dialectic of history.' but must always see Him Alpha and Omega, the Source of the universe no less than a slowly manifest force, cumulative as the aeons pass. But we all agree that present economic conditions inhibit the spirit of man; why not join with those seeking for release, even if ends, the goal of communist effort, are to the Christian only provisional, and means? It will not help communism to further vision, to encounter a hostile or indifferent Church refusing to join its terrific task of clearing the upward way.

I adhere then to the secular revolutionary movement in spite of frequent sharp sorrow over its methods, and I find, more particularly in recent communist thinking, elements vitally important to Christianity. Should I stay neutral in the class struggle, I should, as Gandhi among others points out, be allied with covert coercion far more pernicious than open violence . . .

I put my faith in the movement toward political socialism, in the pressure exerted by organized labor, and in the growing development of Consumers' Co-operation. All three are essential; for my old facile reliance on government ownership grows feeble. No radical can look at Germany or Italy and derive comfort from the increased centering of social control in the political state; I look rather to the two voluntary and democratic agencies of the Producers and the Consumers, working alike, consciously or not, toward the destruction of a classified society . . .

Yet I would not see the Church officially committed to any program. Her work is not to dictate but to enlighten and inspire; she is too all-embracing to endorse this method or that. Probably the future will judge that today as in the past, the truest life in Christendom is in minority groups, driven by Christian impulse to work for a new day.


Liberta Francescana
From Vida Dutton Scudder's Brother John; a tale of the first Franciscans, 1927

"Why talk of abuses," Thomas was impatient still, "on this special day, when we might be glad, for once?"

"I suppose partly, " John returned, "because Brother Elias really did good work in checking and regulating these matters. In spite of his own offenses against the Rule, he did try to enforce a certain decorum in the Order. Some kinds of laxity he suppressed."

"But at what cost?" Thomas was thinking hard. "At the cost of freedom. These abuses of which you speak are the necessary price of liberty. See -- one must choose. A rigid law, imposed from without, producing a delusive order and peace, or wide freedom, with abuses. Francis chose freedom. Is not this liberta Francescana dear to us?"


"We have food; others have none. God bless the Revolution." - - Vida Scudder

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