| Bad Bishop Brown Speaks to Boys and Girls
by Rich Gibson
In the early 1900's, William Montgomery Brown was the Episcopal Suffragan Archbishop of Arkansas. Then he saw a better way. Bishop Brown, quickly to become The Bad Bishop, became a communist, denouncing false prophets of every mystical faith, declaring, “Banish Gods from the Skies and Capitalists from the Earth!” He renamed himself, “Episcopus in partibus Bolshevikium et Infidelium.”
Brown cause quite a stir inside Episcopalianism and in Christianity as a whole. The good Episcopalians tried him for heresy and sought to boot him out of the church. But, once a priest always a priest and Brown stood his ground, at least figuratively. He moved to Galion, Ohio. From his office in Galion, Brown began to write.
He kept his flowered flowing robes, his shepherd’s staff, and a triumphant piece of headgear His dignified photograph serves as a frontpiece to several of his books, perhaps the best work being, “Science and History for Boys and Girls.”
It is hard to determine precisely when he wrote this classic. Bad Bishop Brown formed the Bradford-Brown Educational Company and began to publish in the mid-twenties. His books went through several editions and he was not too careful about indicating earlier editions. My copy, the beautifully paper bound original, cost twenty-five cents in 1933. At least twenty-five thousand copies went into circulation, a far wider audience than most education authors can find today. There is a catch, though. The Episcopal church did all it could to buy up Brown’s books. They destroyed some, stored others. Many copies now available at used book stores were only recently released from church basements and libraries.
So what scary things was Brown willing to say to the kiddies? Brown said: People make gods; gods don’t make people. Darwin was right. Racism is poison. Marx was right. Churches were never friends of the masses of people. Civilization moves forward through close and friendly contact with others–and rejecting religion. In this, Brown foreshadowed by seventy years the Pulitzer winning, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” by Jared Diamond, recently honored by the National Council for the Social Studies in the US.
At base, Brown was far more radical, more insightful, and more courageous than most educators writing today, including the pack that seeks to retreat into a compromise between Church and Evolution, an unethical, cowardly, and opportunist maneuver that gives rightist creationists and other irrationalists room to move. Faithful belief in the deepest of alienated philosophies can easily set up faith in smaller fry, like the President, the Union Leader, or the Superintendent.
Here is some of what Bad Bishop Brown says for himself:
Such is the outlook of a Bad Bishop. But what does Brown say to girls and boys about science and history? In language many fifth-graders will find easy to understand, Brown explains Darwin, on one hand, by explaining the processes of evolution, and on the other hand, by attacking its opponents. While some details of his work are dated, it remains that evolution as a fact nevertheless does encompass areas of contention. For example, Stephen Jay Gould, whose recent tragic death creates a void in popular science that will be hard to fill, debated with Ernst Mayr, author of the most recent readable text on the subject, “What Evolution IS,” about the nature of change itself; Mayr taking the position of a gradualist, while Gould insisted, with Hegelian-Marxists, that evolution includes not merely gradual change but dramatic leaps of change as well. This debate is presaged in Brown’s work, in terms that kids can grasp.
Brown takes up several serious pedagogical issues along the way? What is the value of reading and how do we learn (he’s clear, reading is to read something important, and not to just deepen self-imprisonment by reading solely the bible). People learn because they, first, have a why to learn.
The Bad Bishop is clear on the study of history or social studies as well. It is useless to heap dubious fact upon fact with neither context nor depth–the march step of most social studies textbooks and standards today. Brown urges kids to find a book explaining the processes of history, which he touches upon lightly, and then to go dig deep into something that interests them—which will deepen their understanding of the processes learned at the outset.
Brown then moves to a description of the rise of Christianity, parallel to the beginnings of what many call the Dark Ages, steeped in ignorance and slavery. At nearly every critical juncture, organized Christianity, and other religions, tried to smash scientific advance, while inventing scams like Purgatory in order to raise dues via dispensations. Despite a certain bitterness, at each step, he urges a seminal question, “The way to judge any society is to ask how it treats its majority, ‘How do you treat the workers?”
Kids will recognize the schools Brown describes, the schools of his time, where academic dishonesty and social bullying are commonplace. And he offers a suggestion. Find some friends, maybe just three, and decide that among you each will be kind and honest to the other. Why? Not because there is a heaven or hell, but because you will simply be happier right here and now.
Brown’s Marxism at the time was actually rather mainstream, within the Marxist movement. He supported the USSR, into the mid-thirties, and believed the Bolshevik Party might be the apex of hope in the world, as did probably most Marxists. He believed abundance achieved through technology was the key to a better society, as probably do most Marxists even now. But better than most Marxists, and perhaps in tandem with intellectuals like Raya Dunayevskay, the Bad Bishop also seems to grasp the reason for this. Class struggle may be the motive force of history, but even before that came the authentic struggle for freedom and creativity—via close and friendly contact with others: community.
Brown was full of hope, much of it unfulfilled today, in a world where
all the technology exists to serve as a basis for his better world.
Brown closes with this:
Either as a historical document or a text superior to the local McGraw-Hill offering, the Bad Bishop is worth the candle for any kid or adult. Bishop Brown’s books are available in varying conditions, at differing costs, at abe.com on the internet.
(Science and History for Girls and Boys, William Montgomery Brown)
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