William Thurston Brown: the Gospel of Social Revolution

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July 2, 2014 by Tariq Khan

William Thurston Brown was Salt Lake City’s Unitarian minister from 1907-1910.  He preached that true Christianity is radical socialism.  He was a comrade of Emma Goldman.  He was friends with LDS apostle/prophet Lorenzo Snow’s radical socialist daughter Virginia Snow Stephens.  He collaborated with Stephens in organizing a Modern School in Utah based on the ideas of the martyred Spanish anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer.  Here are some excerpts from his essay “Socialism and Primitive Christianity” (circa 1910) in which he preaches the good ole’ fashioned true gospel: 

 

The only possible way in which Mammon-worshippers could make anything at all out of the simple and revolutionary teachings of Jesus – was by reading new and strange meanings into those teachings.  And the process has been going on ever since and is today.  That is to say, a Mammon-worshipping society then and now has been engaged in the task of trying to interpret to suit its own way of life what were originally the natural watchwords of a movement aiming at the conquest of the world for justice and brotherhood and love.  So, the preachers of what is called the Christian Church – the spokesmen of that class in society which depends for its existence on the exploitation of another class and could not be at all but for that exploitation – these preachers have been saying that the kingdom of God doesn’t mean at all a social order to be realized on the earth – as the Lord’s Prayer plainly teaches – but merely a state of mind, and they have translated certain words of Jesus as “the kingdom of God is within you.”  What Jesus said is “the kingdom of God is among you,” is right here in the movement now going on.  That this is the true translation is seen in every other reference to the kingdom of God by Jesus.  The kingdom of God, to Jesus, was something people could enter, could have part in.  Even publicans and harlots were entering that kingdom, he said, while scribes and Pharisees were not.  Members of the lowest order in society were steadily joining his movement and the leaders of the church were staying out of it…

…Now it is simply historical fact that since the year 325 A.D. or thereabouts, when the ruling, despotic, enslaving class in society perverted and destroyed that early religion by formally adopting it, without having the smallest conception of or sympathy with its revolutionary meaning and purpose, what is called Christianity has been in no sense whatever a movement, but chiefly a theological system.  Nowhere and in no way has the Christian Church devoted itself to the task of establishing a new social order on the earth and any such idea is simply foreign to its thought today.  This is for the most natural reasons.  The dominant element in that church during all these centuries since Constantine has been that social class which exists solely on the exploitation of another class and can, therefore, have no use for brotherhood.  So, the revolutionary religion of Jesus could mean nothing at all to them.  Naturally, it became necessary to transform that early teaching, which was done simply by inventing a theology – a system according to which Jesus the teacher and leader of a movement for establishing brotherhood in the world became the savior of the individual either from the wrath of God in an imaginary future world, or, as is increasingly taught today, in some mystical way, by entering into the soul of each man and making him a new man – in both cases an idea utterly foreign to anything Jesus sought to do…

…Imagine businessmen displaying on the walls of their homes or offices or any place of business such simple, clear-cut precepts of Jesus as:  “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth;” “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon;” “Call no man your master on the earth, for all ye are brethren;” “He that would be the greatest among you shall be the servant of all, even as the son of man came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister;” “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God;” “Woe unto you! scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers.” 

                Why don’t our capitalist church members hang up these words of Jesus in their places of business?  Because all these utterances are the natural expressions of brotherhood – were produced by the sense and spirit of brotherhood, and are the native literature of a movement aiming at brotherhood all-inclusive.  But capitalism is the denial of brotherhood.  That is the reason… The Christian Church is morally and ethically and spiritually decadent today, for no other reason than that it has no sense of supreme obligation to reconstruct society on the foundations of justice and brotherhood. 

                And yet, members of this same sterile organization are charging that the Socialist movement of the world is threatening the overthrow of religion, is an irreligious movement.  This charge, no matter by whom it is brought, has exactly the same force and meaning which the same charge had when brought against Jesus by the Pharisees and hypocrites of his time.  In fact, he was crucified on the charge of being a perverter of religion….

                …It is still easier for a camel or an elephant to go through the eye of a needle than for a person possessing the capitalist mind even to see religion, or to recognize it, if he should see it.  The capitalists’ God is the Socialists’ devil.  No wonder there can be nothing in common between them.  No wonder the capitalist class is proving itself unable to convince the world of its religious sincerity – as evidenced by the growth of the mass of unchurched.  No wonder men and women today who really want to be religious, who really want to make their lives count, have to get out of the church as thousands are doing and even out of the Capitalist class, as men like Tolstoy have done.  That class hasn’t any religion.  Religion cannot be materialistic, God cannot be reconciled with Mammon….

                …If you are part of the human movement for brotherhood, you are religious, no matter what you think or don’t think about any theology or creed or church; no matter what you believe or don’t believe.  And if you are not part of that movement for human brotherhood, all-inclusive, for ending exploitation and tyranny and enthroning liberty, equality, fraternity, then you are not religious, no matter how loudly or incessantly you pray or sing or repeat the empty professions of faith.

http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31175035181984;view=1up;seq=1

 

 

5 thoughts on “William Thurston Brown: the Gospel of Social Revolution

  1. Forest Simmons says:

    Tariq, thanks for digging up these fabulous gems that we non-historians would never come across on our own.

    • Tariq Khan says:

      I’m finding out a lot of fascinating history from the the book A History of Utah Radicalism, by McCormick and Sillito. It’s a real treasure trove of information on things like this.

  2. That last quote is beautiful!

    I also liked this one quite a bit:
    “Imagine businessmen displaying on the walls of their homes or offices or any place of business such simple, clear-cut precepts of Jesus as: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth;” “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon;” “Call no man your master on the earth, for all ye are brethren;” “He that would be the greatest among you shall be the servant of all, even as the son of man came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister;” “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God;” “Woe unto you! scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers.”

    It reminded me of something Kurt Vonnegut once said:

    “How about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?
    Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.
    Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
    Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
    And so on.
    Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly George W Bush, Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld stuff.
    For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
    “Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”

  3. James Stewart says:

    This is good stuff!

    Do you know of any books that explore or document the dramatic change of the mormon church in the early 20th century from left to right? I know the first presidency (i believe under heber grant) wrote several letters to the saints in utah to vote against FDR, but every time the utah mormons voted against the first presidency’s urgings and for leftist politics.

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