The Americanization of the World: William T. Stead's Vision of Empire
Conference Paper by Richard M. Gamble
If you had been alive in 1901, would you have greeted the new
century with hope or fear? Philosophical optimists and pessimists would have
competed for you attention. Ideologies of presumption and despair would have
vied for your allegiance. Was Western humanity on the threshold of a secular
millennium of enlightenment and civilization, or on the brink of spiritual
and cultural catastrophe? By measures of material wealth, power, and technological
innovation, there was every reason for optimism. The sparkling Paris Exposition
of 1900 had displayed the technological wonders of the age, especially the
marvelous applications of electricity. But the mood was also somber. Queen
Victoria had died on January 22, 1901, after a remarkable reign of nearly
sixty-four years. An unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled a rising Germany
unified only thirty years before. The elderly Franz Joseph, emperor of Austria
since 1848, grieved over his wife's assassination in 1898 by an Italian anarchist.
Nicholas II was Czar of Russia; his grandfather Alexander II had been killed
by a terrorist's bomb. American president William McKinley died on September
14, struck down by an anarchist's bullet in Buffalo, New York. The whirlwind
Teddy Roosevelt now occupied the White House. Just three years ago, the United
States had startled the world by gobbling up the last bits of Spain's once
vast global empire, and British poet Rudyard Kipling had invited America to
"take up the White Man's Burden" - to his mind a thankless task
of humanitarian service and liberation of the world's captives. America's
bloody war to subdue the Philippines was still underway. Europe pondered why
the American republic has taken the plunge. Just what did this departure and
transformation portend for Europe's precarious balance of power? Did America
grasp an overseas empire for resources, for security, for power, for prestige?
Europe buzzed about the menace at home of militarism and armaments. A whole
literary genre future wars filled the bookstalls, sensationalist fiction and
non-fiction titles predicting likely war between Britain and France, or more
presciently between Germany and France.
Into this nervous world, British celebrity journalist and editor William T. Stead launched his best-selling book, The Americanization of the World, subtitled "The Trend of the Twentieth Century" - his prediction of America's inevitable, indeed Providential, military, economic, cultural, and ideological domination of the world. Stead, a tireless champion of Anglo-Saxon expansion, offered his prediction not in fear but in hope. Together, the United States and Britain would rule the world. According to historian John Lukacs, Stead's Americanization of the World is "the most direct and eloquent proposition of a union of the English-speaking nations. . . ." He captured "what people were thinking." A century ago, Stead's name was known to the public on both side of the Atlantic and to every prominent official in Europe and America. This outsider's vision of America's redemptive empire reveals to a degree the odd mix of ideals and policies that comprised at least part of America's self-understanding and image in the world circa 1901, long before anyone experienced firsthand what the "American Century" would be like.
Prior to working on this presentation, I had encountered Stead only as a figure linked to the Social Gospel movement in America by way of his sensational expose, If Christ Came to Chicago! John Lukacs' A New Republic, however, introduced me to Stead's Americanization of the World, written six or seven years after his attempt to rescue Chicago. As it turns out, Stead was one of the most prolific, eccentric, controversial journalists of his age, a founder of what Matthew Arnold scorned as the "New Journalism" and a crusader for every imaginable cause and a few unimaginable.
Stead was born in 1849, placing him in the same generation as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. His father was a Congregationalist minister in a small town on the River Tyne in northern England. The stamp of nonconformist Protestantism remained impressed on Stead the rest of his life, even as his dissenting spirit took him further and further form Christian orthodoxy. He was educated by his father and then sent to a boys' school (Silcoates) for two years. The dramatic campaigns of the American Civil War found their way into the students' geography and history lessons. Stead experienced a religious conversion during a religious revival that swept his school, and he joined the Congregational Church. Of the Congregationalists, Stead later remarked that they were "the heirs of Cromwell and Milton and the Pilgrim Fathers, and the representatives of the extreme Democracy which knows neither male nor female, and which makes the votes of the whole Church the supreme and only authority in the Church." Stead's revolutionary zeal and fusion of Christianity and social democracy ran deep in his heritage.
By his own account, Stead's mind was shaped by the books of his childhood. As a youth he read Fox's Book of Martyrs and the American poet James Russell Lowell, to whom he gave the credit for inspiring him with a passion for expansive service to humanity. His imagination was also fired by theologian Jonathan Edwards, the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, the liberal American evangelical preacher Henry Ward Beecher, novelist Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Charles Spurgeon, the Bible, Shakespeare, and the historian Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle's Life of Cromwell was a favorite, and the Puritan revolutionary leader held a lifelong fascination for Stead. G. K. Chesterton, who knew Stead, said that he kept one of Cromwell's pistols in his editorial office. In 1899, Stead wrote the following tribute to Cromwell with all the fervor of an evangelical conversion testimony:
The memory of Cromwell has from my earliest boyhood been the inspiration of my life. . . . My devotion to the Apostles and the Evangelists was but tepid compared with my veneration and affection for the uncrowned king of English Puritanism. Nay, I can to this day remember the serious searchings of heart I experienced when I woke up to a consciousness of the fact that I felt a far keener and more passionate personal love for Oliver Cromwell, than I did even for the divine figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Cromwell was so near, so human, and so real. . . . The execution of the Man of Blood [i.e., King Charles I] made the 30th of January a red-letter day in my calendar, and to this day I fell a thrill of gratitude and pride whenever I pass the banqueting house at Whitehall.
The Banqueting House in London, a Jacobean monument to divine right monarchy,
was, of course, the site of Charles I's execution. In 1901, Stead claimed, without
specifying further, that Cromwell "was instinct with the conviction of
the reality of the providential mission of the English-speaking race."
While still a young man, Stead became a warrior for social justice as writer and editor for the Northern Echo, the Pall Mall Gazette, the Review of Reviews, and other lesser-known and meteoric publishing ventures. One person aptly characterized him in1885 as a mixture of Don Quixote and B. T. Barnum. He publicized such social evils as prostitution and alcohol abuse, and demanded legislative action to ameliorate the condition of the common man.
As early as about 1870, in the immediate context of German unification, Stead advocated union between the British empire and the United States and came to defend what he called a "true Imperialism" aimed at the peace, security, unity, and humanitarian uplift of the world. In 1884 he campaigned for a larger Royal Navy. He wrote an article for the Pall Mall Gazette entitled "The Truth about the Navy," attempting to provoke enough alarm over Britain's vulnerability and Germany's growing navy and colonial adventures to get Parliament to appropriate the necessary funds for a modern navy. Reading Sir John Seeley's Expansion of England (1883) about this time inspired him with the idea of imperial federation. The scheme further expanded in his mind to bring the United States into an Anglo-Saxon union, reversing the blunder of George III. This proposal was similar to the campaign for Anglo-Saxon unification (or re-unification) waged by Stead's friend Cecil Rhodes who famously said that he wanted to "paint the map red" with Britain's empire. Other sympathizers included the industrialist Andrew Carnegie..
Stead's conception of unification fitted into a larger framework of a vaguely applied Darwinism that made progressive development inevitable: old institutions and doctrines had to perish if they were not fit to survive. "Evolution," he wrote in 1884, "is the greatest of all revolutions, for it is a constant factor in the progress of the race. Our creeds and our institutions perish or pass, not because we will, but because they must." "Long ago," he wrote ten years later, "Darwin's Descent of Man, gave me a . . . sense of the immanence of God. . . . Darwin made me see that the creative work is going on today as much as at any previous time in the history of the world, for we stand in the very work shop in which the Eternal is from day to day fashioning the world in which we live." Among the world's inevitabilities was the global dominance of the Anglo-Saxon race with youthful America in the vanguard. Indeed, Darwin himself had claimed in the Descent of Man (1871) that the "wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection" - a tendency accelerated by the self-selection of "energetic, restless, and courageous" immigrants. In the same passage, Darwin endorsed the view of another author that the triumph of the Anglo-Saxon race gave fulfillment and meaning to the achievements of Rome and Greece. American missionary expansionist Josiah Strong (in his bestselling book, Our Country) cited this very section from Darwin as a sure prediction of America's inevitable fulfillment of Anglo-Saxon destiny. Stead operated within a similar mental paradigm.
Along with his bold naval program and ideology of racial superiority, and without any evident sense of paradox or conscious hypocrisy, Stead saw himself ultimately as an antimilitarist and an advocate of world peace. Indeed, he devoted much of his booming energy to arbitration projects like the Hague conference and to various disarmament proposals. He saw no inconsistency between a powerful Britain within an expanding federation, armed with a navy second to none, and the achievement of world peace. The future had to be made secure by an armed peace. The soldier, he said, would be replaced by the international policeman. Stead was a peace advocate but certainly not a pacifist. He operated in the prophetic mode, and held on simultaneously to both ends of paradoxes ; he waged militant holy war but did so for the sake of permanent, universal peace and an end to evil. He was an active interventionist who advocated a concert of European power wielded on behalf of security and at times exercised to liberate subject peoples (such as Bulgaria from the Turks). He distinguished between two kinds of imperialism: on the one hand an "Imperialism of Responsibility" - which he defined quaintly as "an Imperialism plus common sense and the Ten Commandments" - and on the other hand a raw Jingoism - "the Imperialism of pride and avarice." Imperialism in the hands of good and wise and powerful people was a blessing to the world. In the spirit of Kipling, but without the poet's gifts of irony, ambiguity, and subtlety, Stead acknowledged imperialism as a burden of service, a benevolent agent of progress, civilization, and humanity. Listen to Stead in 1880 regarding Britain's mission: "To maintain the European Concert - that germ of the United States of Europe - against isolated inaction; to establish a Roman peace among the dark-skinned races of Asia, Polynesia, and Africa; to unite all branches of the English-speaking race in an Anglo-Saxon Bund, and to spread Liberty, Civilization and Christianity throughout the world." Like Oscar Wilde's concern about Socialist reformers, this doesn't leave many free evenings.
By the time Stead came to write The Americanization of the World in 1901, he had already devoted a book three years earlier to the prospect of a "United States of Europe." Stead wrote in the afterglow of Czar Nicholas II's call in 1898 for an international peace conference at the Hague, Netherlands, and in the stir caused by the United States' victory over Spain that same year. Stead toured Europe to promote arbitration and even met with the Czar himself. He considered the Czar's "Holy War against War," as he called it, to be sincere, thoughtful, workable, and necessary. He saw the United States as a model of successful federation that maintained peace and unity without militarism, despite the messy interruption of the Civil War that had served only to strengthen America. In its role as active peacemaker, the U.S., he hoped, would even end Ottoman "misrule" and fly the Stars and Stripes over Istanbul after a quick replay of its victory over Spain. His exuberance for the famous Hague Conference mimicked Tennyson's poem "In Memoriam" : "And now this far-off, unseen event, toward which the whole Continent has been moving with slow but resistless march, has come within the pale of practical politics, and on the threshold of the twentieth century we await this latest and greatest new birth of Time."
Once across that threshold of the new century, Stead turned more insistently to the United States as the inevitable leader in Anglo-Saxon dominance. The twentieth century, he predicted, correctly, would belong to the United States, but its success meant in truth the triumph of British culture. America was a "reincarnated" Britain. America's success was really Britain's success. The combined English-speaking world would be formidable indeed; it would unite a massive population, dominate the seas, control the world's resources, and expand in wealth, commerce, and technology. In the age of rational and efficient business Trusts, he asked, why couldn't an imperial J. P. Morgan organize "the greatest combination of all"?
Like so many of his time, Stead was drawn to quantity and mass and energy. But more than power was at stake. The highest goals were world peace, world liberty, "free democracy," and humanitarian uplift. America's war with Spain had proven the nation's capacity as a humanitarian and "liberating Power." Stead predicted (and clearly desired) America's eventual annexation of Canada and Newfoundland.
At one level, the process of the world's Americanization took the form of the domestic cultural assimilation of countless immigrants to the U.S. While Stead acknowledged this fact, and noted the contribution of energetic immigrants to America's dynamism, he was, however, more interested in the process of the external Americanization of the rest of the world. Given the determinism of history, Britain and Europe could either cooperate with the inevitable or wage a losing battle and end up Americanized against their will and without their consent. Germany and the Papacy seemed the most resistant to the Americanization of Europe. But the Kaiser's bluster was as pointless as Canute's command to the tide. And the Papacy's skepticism and objections would be overcome: "the supreme Pontiff will recognize that the principles of Americanism are part and parcel of the sacred deposit of truth which it is the duty of the Church sedulously to preserve and to disseminate among the nations of the earth." Europe will be "revolutionize[d]" by "American principles" whether it wants to be or not. And America's revolutionary principles were those of Cromwell's Commonwealth, the Puritans, and the Mayflower. The Islamic Ottoman Empire, too, would be regenerated and transformed by the "leaven" of "the Declaration of Independence and the fundamental doctrines of the American constitution." From the day of its "exodus" from Europe, America had been a "dissolvent of Old World Ideas."
That a British observer of America like Stead could hold to such an exaggerated view of America's mission is a reminder that the American identity has been formed to a degree by outsiders. One of Shakespeare's characters (a clown, in fact) says that "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrown upon them." America's world-redemptive identity is a product of all three: it was with us to a degree at our birth; it has been achieved over time; and it has been thrown upon us by foreign observers, both admirers and critics. This pattern reaches back to English radicals like Richard Price and French philosophes like Turgot. Even H. G. Wells' plans for a World State was patterned on the U.S. According to Chesterton, Wells "propose[d] almost cosmic conquests for the American Constitution," omitting, of course, the fundamental constitutional principle of decentralized, limited government. That Stead and others held such hope for exporting the Declaration of Independence, given its abstract, ahistorical, and universal claims about equality and rights, is easier to comprehend than their enthusiasm for "cosmic conquests" for the Constitution.
Sadly, according to Stead's view of the world circa 1901, America's humanitarian imperialism was misconstrued by some to be something other than the civilizing force and "beneficent dominion" that it truly was. The intended beneficiaries misunderstood. Imagine a worldview in which the follow statement by Stead was not intended ironically: "three years of intermittent warfare [in the Philippines] waged by land and sea have not yet induced the Filipinos to recognize the brotherly love and benevolent intentions of the invaders." In light of these regrettable circumstances, Stead welcomed Kipling's poem, "The White Man's Burden," which provided soothing relief, he said, "to the uneasy conscience of men who were keen to persuade themselves that, while apparently following in the footsteps of predatory Empires, they were in reality humbly accepting onerous duties imposed upon them as instruments of Divine Providence." Like Anglo-Saxon union, the ultimate purpose of the "Americanization of the World" was peace and enforced security. The dangers of imperial hubris were real, Stead warned, and the United States and Britain should strive to dominate the world by ideas and the "force of example." But the risks inherent in the temptations of power were worth it to Stead because such an alliance would produce much good in the world. The goal was nothing less than the Kingdom of God on Earth. Near the end of the book, Stead drew freely from a few lines of James Harrington's utopian Oceana, a prophecy about to be fulfilled:
What can you think but, if the world should see the Roman Eagle again, she would renew her age and her flight? If you add to the propagation of civil liberty the propagation of the liberty of conscience, this empire, this patronage of the world, is the Kingdom of Christ. The Commonwealth of this make is a minister of god upon earth, for which cause the orders last rehearsed are the buds of empire. Such as that the blessing of God may spread the arms of your Commonwealth like a holy asylum to the distressed world, and give the earth her Sabbath of years or rest from her labors under the shadow of your wings.
Despite this millennial expectancy, Stead ends with an unexpected note of caution:
America is too materialistic, restless, and discontent. America must look to
its higher, nobler calling.
No portrait of William T. Stead's sanctified imperialism would be balanced without some indication of the larger context of the reforms and causes he promoted. His scope was remarkable. He edited a collection of hymns; wrote a book calling for reform of the House of Lords; an account of the evangelical revival in Wales; a biography of his close friend General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, and another of Mrs. Booth; an odd book on the Passion Play at Oberammergau ("The Story that Transformed the World'); an expose of seedy New York politics; and a book called The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes. In 1902 he took up the cause for Esperanto, a proposed international language. Back in 1885 he served just over two months in prison having been convicted of abducting a thirteen-year-old girl in a cloak- and-dagger scheme to expose the seedy underworld of prostitution in Victorian London and guarantee passage of reform legislation then pending in Parliament. He enlisted the help of Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, and the Salvation Army, carried out his plan, and wrote a series of sensational, titillating articles. Stead's defenders included Charles Spurgeon, and some compared his efforts to those of William Lloyd Garrison against American slavery. In his spare time, Stead started communicating daily with the dead by means of automatic writing, serving as a spiritual amanuensis for a dead woman named Julia Ames - in life a close friend of Francis Willard, founder of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In 1897 he wrote (or, merely compiled, I suppose) a book of his "Letters from Julia," comforting himself and his readers with the certain reality of life after death. The full title was Letters from Julia, or Light from the Borderland, received by automatic writing from one who has gone before. As a busy editor, Stead had to limit his letter-writing to thirty minutes a day, but over the years, the earnest man claimed to receive messages from Prince Albert, Lord Tennyson, and his own dead son. He also introduced atheist and socialist Annie Besant to Theosophy througt the books of Madam Blavatsky - a story in itself. For a time, they co-edited a weekly called The Link. Besant compared Stead to Cromwell, and the two cooperated to build the "true commonwealth" of the "Church of the Future" and to advance "social righteousness."
Stead's crusade for social and religious reform in the name of this "Church of the Future," or the "Civic Church" as he also called it, reached its farthest advance in 1894 with the publication of If Christ Came to Chicago! (The title page of the original edition includes an exclamation mark. The subtitle is "a plea for the union of all who love in the service of all who suffer.") Stead visited Chicago in 1893 for the World Columbian Exposition and was overwhelmed by the city's energy, potential, and squalid conditions. He predicted that the Windy City would one day be not only the inland capital of the United States, but perhaps even of the Anglo-American federation. He visited Jane Addams' Hull House settlement, and preached twice to mass audiences at the Central Music Hall about the Gospel of Humanity and the power of "applied Christianity." He boasted of the fact that a Socialist and a convicted anarchist joined him on the platform.
If Christ Came to Chicago! is typically situated by historians in the context of America's social gospel movement. This placement is correct, although some historians seem to think that Stead was an American and a clergyman. If Christ Came to Chicago! belongs grouped in particular with Charles M. Sheldon's In His Steps (1896), the popular novel which asked the famous question now current again among evangelical youth, "What would Jesus do?" In His Steps was one of the most significant vehicles used to popularize the Social Gospel movement. Stead's book asked only a slightly different question, and Stead was every bit as confident what Jesus would do the first moment he got to Chicago.
By the name "Christ," Stead did not have in mind the theological, Scriptural Jesus of the Incarnation and Atonement or even the historical Jesus of ancient Palestine. For Stead, Christ was an "ideal," an inspiration and a standard of human sympathy. Whether he ever existed in flesh and blood, in time and space, was not the point. He came and continues to come in a different way. Faithfulness to this ideal of service required applying Christ "to the actual circumstances of the civic life of Chicago." Stead described his impassioned book as "an attempt to illustrate how a living faith in the Citizen Christ would lead directly to the civic and social regeneration of Chicago." What followed was a lengthy indictment of the city's treatment of the homeless, prostitution, intemperance, materialism, grinding poverty, inequitable taxation, rampant political corruption, and the scandal of a disunited Church powerless to redeem the city. Christianity was not doctrine, or ritual, or membership, but humanitarian "acts of mercy." Around this goal, the churches of Chicago ought to unite their resources and energies. The Church is an agent of social reconstruction. Stead presupposed a visibly relevant, socially transformative Christianity - appealing to all kinds of evangelicals, whether liberal or more conservative. He essentially asked why, if Jesus came to redeem the world, was the world still such a mess after nearly 1900 years.
In March, 1912, Stead received a telegram from the United States inviting him to speak at a convention at Carnegie Hall of the National Men and Religion Forward Movement. The Men and Religion Forward Movement was a sort of early twentieth-century version of Promise Keepers intended to get men and boys back into what some saw as a dangerously feminine church. The movement gained the attention of the Federal Council of Churches which tried to bring the organization under its ecumenical and social reform umbrella. The announced topic of the event in New York was world peace; featured speakers were in include President Taft, James Bryce, William Jennings Bryan, and Booker T. Washington. Stead eagerly accepted the invitation, hoping the men's movement signaled a step toward his ideal of the "Civic Church." On April 10, 1912, he set sail on the Titanic, doomed to be one of the nearly 1500 who drowned. In a piece entitled "The Great Shipwreck as Analogy," G. K. Chesterton summed up William Stead:
The case of Mr. Stead, which I feel with a rather special emotion, both of sympathy and difference, is very typical of the whole tragedy. Mr. Stead was far to great and brave a man to require any concealment of his exaggerations or his more unbalanced moods; his strength was in a flaming certainty, which one only weakens by calling sincerity, and a hunger and thirst for human sympathy. His excess, we may say, with real respect, was in the direction of megalomania; a childlike belief in big empire. Big newspapers, big alliances - big ships. He toiled like a Titan for that Anglo-American combination of which the ship that has gone down may well be called the emblem. And at the last all these big things broke about him, and somewhat bigger things remain: a courage that was entirely individual; a kindness that was entirely universal. His death may well become a legend.
Many of his contemporaries, friend or foe, expected Stead's legend and legacy
to continue. His biographer devotes a brief final chapter to a consideration
of "Stead's place in history," wondering for which of his causes the
internationally famous crusader would be best remembered - not considering for
a moment the possibility that Stead would nearly vanish from the history books.
History's ironies can be cruel. He did not live, of course, to see the catastrophe
of the Great War that burst upon Europe little more than two years after his
death. The United States joined with Britain in that fateful war, Britain was
soon reduced nearly to "the status of an English-speaking Belgium"
as Stead thought it might , the twentieth century became the American Century,
American culture continues to dissolve and revolutionize every other culture,
and the U.S. now finds itself if not with its flag unfurled over Istanbul then
certainly at war with Islamic terrorism. The world has been Americanized to
a remarkable degree, and some speak of nation's mission to universalize the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as birthrights given by God
to all people. Some have even claimed that these efforts, especially the war
in Iraq, are essential to America's spiritual health.
The "Americanization of the World" was predicted a century ago and realized in that intervening century. But which America has been globalized? Materially, we see evidence - like Coke and Levis and popular music - too obvious to catalog. Ideologically, we may detect the spread of the American creed outward from the "nation with a soul of a church." But exactly which affirmations of the American creed are being exported (actively or simply by example)? The American creed has been a jumble of political doctrine, not entirely consistent or even compatible. As we consider the benefits and risks of the "Americanization of the world" - benefits and risks to others and to ourselves - we have to face just which America we are talking about. We have been and continue to be many things. We have been Puritans and Cavaliers, Federalists and Antifederalists, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, revivalists and confessionalists, Yankees and Rebels, expansionists and isolationists, centralists and decentralists, cosmopolitans and localists, progressives and traditionalists, heterodox and orthodox, optimists and pessimists. But optimism and pessimism, to return once more to the wisdom of Chesterton, are both sins - the sins of extremes, the sins of presumption and despair. No successful empire or republic can afford to be guilty of either.
Fatalism or Hope?
A Response to Richard M. Gamble's "The Americanization of the World"
Richard Gamble has brought a thoughtful and very timely contribution to the
discourse of American History, in particular the history of American International
Relations with this paper and his book The War For Righteousness. In recent
times modern, rational and materialist hegemony on academic history has had
its grip loosened by scholarship that takes faith seriously.
In specific the reader is taken with Gamble's use of William T. Stead as a stand in, an icon, a symbol of the Progressive Era as it headed toward its own "titanic" shipwrecks in the Marne, Ypres, Versailles and Nuremberg. Stead was a larger than life figure beloved by and, sometimes, deeply troubling to those who knew him. Woodrow Wilson's friend Albert Shaw, who had recently taken up a position as the American editor of Stead's paper Review of Reviews, was denied a chair in Economics at Princeton when members of the University board read the first edition put out under his editorship. They were troubled by the article written by Annie Besant whom Professor Gamble has mentioned and Stead's enjoyment of controversy. Shaw responded to the disappointing news he had received from Wilson with a spirited defense of Stead that adds to our temptation to see him as a stand in for the whole American progressive era.
As For Mr. Stead, let me tell you my dear Wilson, that he is the man of all men I have ever known who is most fearlessly and unselfishly devoted to the service of God and of truth. Men of his intense personality and peculiar temperament some times make mistakes, and they almost always make the correct and conforming world feel uncomfortable. . . . But Stead impresses me as a better Christian than any of these Reverend Doctors. He is ready to sacrifice even his reputation and standing among his Christian brethren for the love of truth. . . . and yet at times we should have to classify him as a crank.
William Stead's final publication of Review of Reviews, also referred to in Professor Gamble's paper, spoke of the hope he placed in the development of a Civil Church. As Charles Long recently said in a talk delivered at Michigan State University, the idea of Civil Religion is a typically American one. When we speak of other places and countries, Iraq for instance, we speak most often of developing a Civil Society, then - perhaps - we may also give a nod to the development of a Civil Religion. But when we speak of America it is quite natural to speak of a Civil Religion. What kind of religion remains contested but we do indeed fit the description of a "nation with the soul of a church." This is, in great part, the cultural legacy of the Progressive Era and men like Stead.
Stead had a very specific idea about how this Civil Church should look. He had spent time with Leo Tolstoy and had embraced his deeply syncretic views of religion. Stead encouraged everyone in this Civil Church to; Be a Christ. . . . He went on to say, Even if you doubt whether He ever really lived, God Incarnate in mortal flesh, the more imperative is your duty to endeavor so far as you can, to realize in your own person that supreme embodiment of love, in order that now, if never before, there may be on earth a Messiah of God who is Love among men who are perishing for want of love. By unhooking the missionary impulse of Christianity from the need for an actual faith in Christ, Stead gave even the most secular progressives a tool to use in advancing American democratic ideals with missionary zeal and methods.
Now we must inevitably come to the questions raised by Professor Gamble's paper. We begin with an age old question that is begged by this critique of the Progressives; How then shall we live? The final line of Stead's last publication reads, "I expect to leave by the Titanic on April 10th, and hope I shall be back in London in May"
The word in this last sentence that we should consider the most important is not the word "Titanic" which leaps up and grabs the attention and emotion of the reader (often with moving music playing in the back of the mind). The word that matters most here, most to Stead, most to the Progressive Era leaders and most to us - I would argue - is the quieter word "hope."
Let us now begin a process of free association of ideas as we interact with Professor Gamble's paper. Richard Gamble has warned us of the twin dangers - no - sins - of presumption and despair. He then abruptly ends the narrative with these presumptuous persons dead or in despair at our feet, victims of a Titanic tragedy of their own making. This seems to consign us to the hell of fatalism. Idealism leads to presumption, which leads to tragedy, which leads to despair. Better let well enough alone - could be the moral of this narrative.
American Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, himself disillusioned by the presumption of his age, described the America that had been under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson, the president who most disappointed him, as a nation in its infancy. America had to grow up, to get beyond its fascination with righteousness. For Niebuhr this infantile presumption had been dealt with by two world wars. In his "Irony of American History" he despairs of any "War for Righteousness." This cold and sinful age will only produce greater and lesser sins and the best we could do was to promote the cause of lesser sins. Niebuhr's "Civil Church" was cold and, he would say, "realistic." But who would want to attend?
We as a nation are producing a population that remains in adolescence years longer than previous generations. Are we also returning to an adolescent foreign policy? Are Paul Wolfowitz, Carl Rove and the Neo-Conservatives simply playing Peter Pan with Progressive Era dreams? Are they the newly incarnated William T. Steads? If so then what are we to do? If we avoid the twin sins of presumption and despair how then will we live? Can we as human beings ever promote idealism in youth or a nation without these dangers? Does not all longing for a good or better world lead inevitably to a sense of mission? Won't any mission be seen as presumptuous to those being evangelized or being improved? In the dialectic between presumption and despair where is the synthesis? Where is the place where we can live and still hope for and dream of a better world?
On Woodrow Wilson's last Armistice Day, November 11, 1923, a crowd gathered outside the house on S Street. Looking weak and old, the former president, who 30 years before had told Shaw of his loss of a job at Princeton because of his association with Stead, who had then as president of the United States tried to make Stead's world a reality, was helped onto the steps where he stood to make his final public address. Breaking down with emotion repeatedly he spoke about the triumph of the mission that he believed God had called him to accomplish. He closed his speech with a continued determination that Providence would yet vindicate him. "I am not one of those that have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I have stood for. I have seen fools resist Providence before and I have seen the destruction, as will come upon these again - utter destruction and contempt. That we shall prevail is as sure as that God reigns."
Is this where hope for a better world will always end? Does the broken Wilson in his final months warn us of the absurdity of hope? I return to Stead's word "hope" which springs up even in the deeply disillusioned Niebuhr's "Irony." Niebuhr wrote; Nothing worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Having escaped the sins of presumption and despair how do we as historians - or more importantly as a people and a nation - keep ourselves from falling into the existential hell of raw fatalism? In other words how can we - without danger - imbue our own national narrative with hope? Or is danger simply inevitable for those who would work for a better world?