Feast of William Dwight Porter Bliss and Richard Theodore Ely (October 8)   Leave a comment





Episcopal Priest

The Episcopal Church added the commemoration of these two proponents of economic justice to its calendar of saints in 2009.  There is never a bad time to advocate for economic justice.  Indeed, Biblical prophets and authors did this millennia ago.  And today, when one Glenn Beck, who denounces social justice Christianity, hosts popular radio and cable and television shows, the message remains relevant.

I begin with an excerpt from The Social Conscience of the Evangelical (1968), by the Reverend Sherwood Eliot Wirt (d. 2008), who worked closely with the Reverend Billy Graham, the noted U.S. evangelist.  From page 154:

James was not wrong when he demanded that Christians show their faith by their works.  Jesus Christ was not wrong when he told his listeners in effect to stop sitting on their hands and to get to work doing God’s will.  He did not come to earth to split theological hairs, but to minister to a world of need and to save men out of it for eternity.  It is time the air was cleared.  To pit social action against evangelism is to raise a phony issue, one that Jesus would have spiked in a sentence.  He commanded his disciples to spread the Good News, and to let their social concern be made manifest through the changed lives of persons of ultimate worth.

Bliss and Ely understood the connection between evangelism and social justice well.

The Reverend William Dwight Porter Bliss, born to Christian missionaries, debuted in Constantinople (now Istanbul), then the seat of the Ottoman Empire, in 1856.  He grew up to become a Congregationalist pastor (1882-1886) before converting to The Episcopal Church in 1886.  Ordained Deacon in 1886 and Priest the following year, he served parishes in several states.  Most notably, however, Bliss organized the first Christian Socialist Society in the United States in 1899.  According to Bliss, all Christians were responsible for economic justice, which was “rooted and grounded in Christ, the liberator, the head of humanity.”  Bliss saw the social problems associated with industrialization and urbanization, and sought to address them based on his Christian faith.  He died on October 26, 1926.

Richard Theodore Ely was an Episcopal layman and a Professor of Economics.  Raised a Presbyterian, he converted to The Episcopal Church as an undergraduate at Columbia University.  Ely went on to teach at the University of Heidelberg (in Germany), Johns Hopkins University, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Northwestern University.  He rejected the extremes of pure socialism and unregulated capitalism, yet nearly lost his professorship in 1894 (at Wisconsin) for “teaching socialist principles.”  The professor favored a balance between capitalistic individualism and a socialist focus on collective efforts.  Human dignity–indeed, the dignity of workers in an industrial nation–demanded no less, he argued.  Ely influenced a good friend, the Reverend Walter Rauschenbusch, prophet of the Social Gospel (July 2 on this Ecumenical Calendar of Saints).

Lest you think that only reactionaries with no regard for academic freedom targeted Dr. Ely, know that some Socialists criticized him in strong terms, as well.  For them, he was too conservative.  This allegedly too conservative man, by the way, also supported labor unions, compulsory education laws, safe work places, the abolition of child labor, and other progressive causes of the early Twentieth Century in the United States. (Does not Glenn Beck also use the world “progressive” in a negative way, also?)

Professor Ely retired from Northwestern University in 1933 and died on October 4, 1933.

Jesus is our liberator.  Yahweh is the God of social justice, including economic justice.  The Bible says more about economic justice (or the lack thereof) than many other topics (such as sex and sexuality) about which people obsess.  If the relative amount of ink spilled on subjects is a reliable measure of importance, economic justice is vital to the Christian faith.  It is vital to the Christian faith.





Blessed God, whose Son Jesus came as servant to all:  We thank you for William Bliss and Richard Ely, whose dedication to the commonweal through economic justice led to be bold reformers of the world and of the Church; and we pray that we, with them, may find our true happiness through self-sacrifice in service of your reign, where all the hungry are fed and the downtrodden are raised up through Jesus Christ our Liberator; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Isaiah 61:1-4

Psalm 18:21-31

Acts 2:41-47

Luke 16:19-31

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