"An Account of My Stewardship": Mercer Green Johnston, the Episcopal Church and the Social Gospel in Newark, New Jersey, 1912-1916.*

Article excerpt

By the mid-1880s the American Episcopal Church seemed finally to have attained a degree of stability. After thirty years of strife, the high church anglo-catholic party had triumphed over its evangelical rival and most Episcopalians anticipated a period of calm.1 Within ten years, however, a new battle was raging, as the first wave of the religious reform movement known as the Social Gospel established a bridgehead in seminaries throughout the nation. The advent of the idea that the church had a duty to act as a corporate institution to solve the social problems of industrial society threatened to alter radically the nature of parish life and challenged the authority exercised by influential laymen on the vestries of many Episcopal parishes. While the story of the Social Gospel in mainline Protestantism has received much attention2 there are few accounts of how the reform process was handled at the parish level. One documented exception-albeit largely from the rector's point of view-is to be found in the papers of Mercer Green Johnston, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey from 1912 to 1916. Over four short years Johnston unsuccessfully sought to advance the Social Gospel at Trinity through social service work and moral reform. His story casts light on the theology and reform activities of the broad church party and the inevitable conflict between rector and vestry that such activities provoked.

From 1880 to 1920, the Episcopal Church enjoyed an unusually prominent position in the national dialogue over the proper relationship between religion, scientific progress and the state.3 Relishing its status as a body that united Catholic theology with modernism, many Episcopal leaders mapped out a broad strategy of foreign missions in Asia and slum work and social reform at home.4 Debates between anglo-catholics and members of the broad church party, with whom Johnston was associated, spoke to the wider issue of how the Church as an institution could most effectively be in the world and yet not of it.5 In that debate, Johnston often bemoaned his close personal associations with the church establishment. His father, James Steptoe Johnston, held parishes in Mississippi, Kentucky and Alabama before becoming bishop of the missionary district of West Texas in 1888. At the age of twenty-five, after abandoning the idea of a legal career, his son entered the University of the South, where he fell under the influence of one of the Episcopal Church's most influential modernist theologians, William Porcher duBose. At his father's urging, Johnston served his diaconate in the slum mission of Grace Church, New York City, before returning to West Texas where he held parish and educational responsibilities. In 1903, he undertook a five-year assignment to the Philippines where he worked under Bishop Charles H. Brent. Dissatisfied with the administrative duties that greeted him on his return to West Texas in 1909, he gladly accepted election as rector of Trinity, Newark in 1912.6

Conditions at Trinity were far removed from those of either West Texas or the Far East. Organized in 1746, it was regarded as the mother parish of the diocese. Under Louis Osborne, rector from 1890 until his death in 1912, Trinity pursued an active outreach policy that compared well with its neighbors. Beginning with an inner city mission in 1883, Trinity subsequently established a Girls' Friendly Society, a Boys' Club and a Workingmen's Club, provided relief to needy members and to certain non-members and made its parish house available for neighborhood meetings. In 1912, the church had 800 communicants from all walks of life, although the majority of Sunday School pupils and members of the 125-member Girls' Friendly Society hailed from working-class backgrounds. The parish also provided financial support to Christ Chapel, which ministered to 500 mill workers in the Newark suburb of Harrison.7

It was in the urban heartland, many Episcopal leaders believed, that the struggle for American Christianity would be won or lost. …