Friday, October 2, 2009

Was B.F. Westcott a Communist?

(This post is in the nature of "Appendix 2" to The Craft of Dishonest Quotation.)

It has been said by King James Only writers that Brooke Foss Westcott was a communist. Most found this accusation on a quotation found in Life Vol. 1 P. 309: “I suppose I am a communist by nature.”
A fuller quotation reads:

“But ‘the Speaker’s’ made me bitterly sad. I suppose I am a communist by nature; but surely dress and jewels cannot be tolerated even in this world for ever. What a ‘Commentary on the Bible,’ could the people of Whitechapel have seen it, that would have seemed!”

A few words of explanation are in order. Westcott’s John first appeared as a volume in the Speaker’s Commentary on the Bible series. There was some sort of reception or launch party associated with the commentary, and Westcott records his disgust with the level of display in the clothing of those attending the party. Whitechapel was of course a slum district of London, notorious as the place where Jack the Ripper committed his crimes. The quotation comes from a private letter, and in context can only be a rather acid social comment, that professed Christians, instead of caring for the poor, were adorning themselves with jewellery and expensive clothes. What Westcott is in fact saying is that he would be viewed as a communist by many people for such remarks, not that he actually was a communist.

The other ‘evidence’ for Westcott’s socialism often cited is his involvement in the Christian Social Union. This is to mistake the CSU for a socialist body, or in other words to read the title of the organisation as if it was ‘Christian Socialist Union. Westcott admits, “The title ‘Christian Social Union’ is liable to misconstruction.”[1] Thus he goes on to explain the true meaning of the name:

“The use of the word ‘Christian’ is positive and not negative. It says that the work of the Union is founded on the Christian Creed. It says nothing of others. ‘Social’ again is necessary. It indicates that the aim of the Union is to influence our social life, as distinguished from our individual life. It is perhaps unfortunate that the first two epithets suggest the title ‘Christian Socialist,’ but members of the Union are by no means pledged to what is called Christian Socialism – a most vague phrase.”[2]

It should not need to be added that a genuine Christian Socialist would not view the phrase ‘Christian Socialism’ as vague at all. Nor is there any reason Westcott would have concealed his views. Others did not, after all! Indeed, in his biography of his father, Westcott’s son writes that his father, “Acted as a restraining influence on those who would confine the Union practically to the promulgation of advanced socialistic views.”[3] It must be recalled that Westcott was at this time the Bishop of Durham, and that the diocese contained large industrial areas. This was the age of starvation wages and inadequate housing. In the 19th century many Evangelical believers interested themselves in improving the lot of the poor in society. While Westcott’s theology was hardly evangelical, his interest in improving the lot of the poor does not make him a communist.

Furthermore, the fact that he was offered the Bishopric of Durham, which brought with it a seat in the House of Lords, indicates first of all that his politics cannot have been radically Socialist. W.E. Gladstone would not have offered such an opportunity to air his views to a man known to hold subversive and revolutionary views. Secondly, the fact that Westcott accepted an appointment that brought with it the trappings of aristocracy, including a grand castle (pictured) as his main Episcopal residence, fits ill with any sort of “communism”.


[1] Life Vol. 2 P. 260
[2] Ibid.
[3] Life Vol. 2 P. 198


Waitaminute! said...

Weascott hated America, democracy, The KJV, and Evangelicals. But he loved Darwin, Spiritists, Greek pagans and anyone who could help him overthrow the authority of the Bible.
He is Id'd as an Alexandrian "mystic " by the leading scholars of our time.

Highland Host said...

Ipse dixit. Prove it.

Plus, let me let you into a little secret. MOST British people dislike America, it's because you had a little revolution, you know.

Plus, which leading Scholars? And have you READ Westcott? Because he didn't want to "overthrow the authority of the Bible" unless you mean by "the Bible" a single 17th century Anglican translation.