Clerical scandals in the 19th century

We can be tempted to think that clergy behaving badly is a uniquely modern phenomenon, but it is nothing of the sort. Edmund Wilson’s fantastic book Patriotic Gore contains letters from Calvin Ellis Stowe to his wife Harriet Beecher Stowe on the subject of prominent scandals in his day. He wrote:

“I have thought much of our domestic happiness lately in connection with the melancholy licentiousness, recently detected, of several clergymen of high reputation in the east.”
A bishop in Philadelphia, whom Calvin has admired as a writer for his effective refutation of the “historical argument against Christianity,” “it now appears has long been addicted to intoxication, and while half boozled has caught young ladies who were so unfortunate to meet him alone, and pawed them over in the most disgusting manner, and actually attempted to do them physical violence. This has been going on for years until it could be borne no longer, and now it all comes out against him, to the dishonor of religion, his own unspeakable shame and anguish, and the distress unutterable of his wife and children.” And: “Another distinguished high church episcopalian clergyman in Philadelphia, nearly 60 years old, is said to be in precisely the same predicament as his bishop. Bless the Lord, O my soul, that with all my strong relish for brandy and wine, and all my indescribable admiration and most overflowing delight in handsome young ladies, no offenses of this kind have yet been written down against me in God’s book. Next comes the most melancholy case of N. E. Johnson, lately editor of the N.Y. evangelists and recently pastor of the Meth. Church in Bloomfield, N.J. though he has been admired as an evangelical, spiritual, revival preacher of great talent and concentrated piety, and married to an intelligent, amiable and pious woman who has borne him children, though associating without suspicion with the most pious men and the most accomplished and Christian women, it now appears that for 8 or 9 years past he has been in the habit of not only visiting the theaters . . . but also the brothels and bawdy houses of the city of N.Y. where he would get beastly drunk and revel and swelter with the vilest harlots. . . .
“Last in this dreadful catalogue, J. H. Fairchild, formerly pastor of the Orthodox church in South Boston, and lately of Exeter N.H. a man 55 years old, twice married, and whose daughters are mothers. Circumstances have recently occurred, which show that he has for years been licentious, that while elder he seduced one of his own kitchen girls, committed adultery with a member of his own church; and lately he has cut his throat and killed himself in the agony of his shame, while pastor of one of the most respectable churches in Exeter. . .
“Now what shall we think of all these horrid disclosures? Is there anybody we can trust? Are all ministers brutes? I confess I feel almost ashamed to go into a pulpit or ask anyone to contribute a cent for ministerial education. .

As the sacred writer tells us, there is nothing new under the sun.






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