Canon Bernard Iddings Bell defended the Christian faith with grace and courage. His work as a chaplain during the first World War inspired him to write books catechizing all the broken and confused young men searching for answers in the aftermath of the war to end all wars.Russell Kirk, my favorite intellectual historian and horror novelist of the period, gives thanks for Bell’s wisdom and holiness in his memoir The Sword of Imagination. Everyone needs heroes, people who challenge us totake up our crosses and follow Christ. For Fr. Shaun and I, Canon Bell is one such hero. We believe he spoke like a prophet and lived like a saint. Considering his impact on us, we plan on ruminating on his life and work on this blog from time to time. For those who are unfamiliar with Bell, though, I think Kirk’s introduction is a good place to start:
Old Mr. Nock of Canaan, Connecticut, introduced Kirk through correspondence to “a gentleman of some intellectual distinction” (Nock’s description), Dr. Bernard Iddings Bell –probably Nock’s most intimate friend, so far as Nock admitted people to any degree of intimacy. Later, Bell and Kirk would spend many days together: at Chicago, in the Bells’ apartment at the top of a baby skyscraper; in London, together with their common friend T. S. Eliot; at Scottish country houses, Balcarres in particular. But by that time, Nock had tramped all the way down to the river.
Canon Bell was the author of many small good books, nearly all of them now out of print: In the City of Confusion, Beyond Agnosticism, The Church in Disrepute, and others deserve restoration to booksellers’ shelves. Late in his life, his Crowd Culture attracted considerable attention; his articles appeared in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. In the pages of Commonweal and elsewhere, Bell commended Kirk’s first book and other writings. Friendship with this little bulldog of a canon was Kirk’s direct opening to literary circles.
It is one of the marks of human decency, Eliseo Vivas remarks somewhere, to be ashamed of having been born into the twentieth century. With reason, Canon Bell excoriated our century. For broad influence, he was the most distinguished Episcopalian clergyman in the United States; he had an English reputation, too, and a large audience among many Catholics and many Protestant bodies. Famous as a preacher, he was also a powerful and clever writer, his books being sold in the tens of thousands. His sermons were read and discussed by a public few Christian apologists have reached since Victorian times. A High Churchman, he made no concessions to social gospellers, liberals, latitudinarians, modernists, humanitarians, or public-relations experts.
He was so hot against entrenched selfishness and stupidity that he was denounced as a communist; he was so hot against malign collectivism that he was denounced as an apologist for reaction. Such abuse delighted B. I., who rejoiced in a good fight. No one ever had the better of him in a battle of wits. Easily incensed, he was ready to forgive; and he was a man of honor scrupulous in distinguishing persons from opinions.
His life was one long fight. Only from a condition of voluntary poverty, Thoreau tells us, can a man justly criticize society; and Canon Bell did not hesitate to pay that forfeit. Although well rewarded as lecturer and author, he spent his income in good works and donated much of his own stipend when he was counselor to Episcopalian students at the University of Chicago. In educating his only son (who died at the threshold of manhood), in extensive travel, and in devotion to his ordained duties as priest, he spent his money as it came –and that on principle.
For when Bell was a little boy, he learned something from his grandmother. Straited in their means, his grandparents had been frugal, saving all their lives to build and furnish a house to their liking. In old age they achieved their aim, and their house was built and well plenished; and just then old Mrs. Bell discovered that she was suffering from an incurable cancer. Put to bed, she had her grandson called in, and said this to him: “Bernard, your grandfather tells me that they are going to have to put me under drugs soon, and then I will not be able to talk with you. So I wish to tell you now what I have learnt from life. I have had a long life, and rather a hard one, and I have learnt this: Never save any money”
The anecdote and the tone were characteristic of B. I. Bell. He set himself to saving souls, instead, after studying history at the University of Chicago, and after working for a time as a paddy wagon-chasing newspaper reporter. In 1910 he was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church; and his influence in that church became perceptible, even though often he stood in a forlorn minority at church convocations.
At the age of twenty-eight, he was dean of a cathedral (at Fond du Lac, Wisconsin); at thirty-two, he was ministering to the spiritual needs of fifty thousand sailors at Great Lakes Naval Training Station; at thirty-four, he became president of St. Stephen’s College (now Bard College), where he served with distinction for fourteen years but resigned when the trustees would not support him in his code of manners and other matters. (He had insisted that students rise when a professor entered the classroom –a violation of democratic dogmata.)
To Bell, when he was president of St. Stephen’s, came young Robert Hutchins, son of the president of Berea College, seeking a post as an instructor in English literature. Bell, who knew the elder Hutchins, inquired of the young man why he wished to teach: “Do you love English literature, Mr. Hutchins, or do you feel a vocation to teach, or what is your motive?”
“I want to earn enough money to put myself through law school,” Hutchins answered, his arrogant head held high.
“Why should you earn the money?” Bell asked. “That’s an awkward way to go about it. I know that college presidents do not get large salaries, but your father has many wealthy friends, any one of whom would be happy to lend you the money for law school; once successful as a lawyer, you could pay back the sum. Why not do that?”
“Because,” said Hutchins, sustained by much self-assurance, “I don’t mean to be obligated to anyone.” Clearly he anticipated approval of such fine Emersonian self-reliance.
“Then, Mr. Hutchins, we don’t want you at St. Stephen’s.”
Young Hutchins was angry: “Why not?”
“Because, Mr. Hutchins, we don’t want anyone in this college who is too proud to be obligated to anybody.”
Long later, when Bell spent years counselling Episcopalian students at the University of Chicago, Chancellor Hutchins studiously refrained from speaking to him. Christian humility was not among Hutchins’s virtues, and soft answers were not among Bell’s vices.
Bell stood against the degradation of the democratic dogma in American education, and he rallied round him many spirits, though there were times when he stood almost alone. His book Crisis in Education was one of the first to undertake demolition of vulgarized Deweyism. Bell was no respecter of the secular dogma that “one man is as good as another, or maybe a little better.” Had we now a dozen more like him, we might cleanse the intellectual sty in the closing years of the twentieth century. B.I. died poor, being blind and unable to lecture or write during his final year; it was saddening to sit with him then, as Kirk did from time to time. He laid up his treasure in heaven.
Once Kirk listened to Bell’s preaching at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, then still being restored from the bombing; and Bell spoke, amidst the rubble and hideousness of London, for that great continuity and essence the Church, in the tone of the Fathers of the early centuries and the divines of the seventeenth century from whom his inspiration came. And once Kirk gave away a bride –being married to Pongo McClellan, who had come over to America and entered into friendship with Canon Bell –at a wedding that Bell performed. If there be any contagion in holiness, Kirk may have some chance for redemption, with B. I. Bell for his intercessor.
Kirk followed Canon Bell onto the narrow road and joined the journey Godward. In a world full of war and confusion, Canon Bell called men to repent and turn to Christ. He called them to lives of sacrificial love and eternal union with their creator and sustainer. We often find ourselves quoting Bell or recommending his work on the sacraments or the good news at our parish. No matter where you start, Canon Bell casts out confusion and calls us to prepare the way for the Prince of Peace. And we need voices like his during these days of confusion and conflict.