Millionaire Socialist and Omnist Episcopalian: J. G. Phelps Stokes's Political and Spiritual Search for the "All"
Robert D. Reynolds Jr.
In 1895 James Graham Phelps Stokes's life changed. A student at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, Stokes had expected to combine his two great interests, medicine and the church, by becoming a medical missionary. But his father, Anson Phelps Stokes, head of the family company with widespread real estate and railroad properties, was in failing health and needed his second eldest son to help oversee the family's financial holdings. The request that he abandon a life of "service" to become a "mere man of business" shocked the younger Stokes. He would now have to search for new outlets for his dream.
The guiding principle in Stokes's search, in both his religious and his temporal activities, was "a REALITY so transcendent that upon approach to it every vestige of separate awareness vanishes, and one becomes awake in That Which Is All." For Stokes the key was: "All the higher centers awake to functional activity automatically as man succeeds in leading a selfless life; and it is only through such selfless living, and selfless devotion to that One Purpose which seeks equally the welfare of all its seeming parts that the higher forms of vision can be attained." 1 Stokes sought this vision in politics and in religion, ultimately finding solace only in the spiritual realm. The Socialist Party in America ultimately failed to provide the selfless political system he was seeking. Only the Episcopal Church and other of the world's religions provided an unsullied forum for Stokes's study and devotion.
Wealth, religion, and civic responsibility had been part of the Stokes and Phelps families for generations. Stokes's great-grandfather Thomas Stokes was a successful merchant and one of the founders of the London Missionary Society. Another great- grandfather, Anson Greene Phelps, created the company that evolved into the industrial giant Phelps Dodge and Company but also had time to be one of the founders of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Throughout the nineteenth century, the families participated in the activities of the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, the Domestic Missionary Society, and a number of similar organizations.