A Lesson from The Socialist Controversy at Berkeley Divinity School

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The memorial bulletin for W.P.Ladd, around whom the controversy centered. (RG216, Box 2, Folder 50)

On December 2nd, 1919, an unassuming Brit by the name of Wilfred Humphries gave a talk at Berkeley Divinity School (then located in Middletown, CT, now a part of Yale Divinity School). The stated purpose of his talk was to give a first hand account of the contemporary situation in Russia, and he dedicated it to describing what he took to be some of the more positive aspects of the new Bolshevik regime. During the talk he shared a slide of the Russian flag and described how it was perceived by the Russians he had met. He also said a few complimentary words about Lenin and Trotsky.

This talk had been given at several New England colleges without provoking much of a reaction. After the talk in Middletown, CT, however, several members of the public claimed that the talk was unpatriotic communist propaganda. Newspaper editorials were written denouncing Dean W.P. Ladd and his faculty as corrupting both the Gospel and their students with socialism. A three person committee investigating the matter was formed at Ladd’s request. The provincial storm made national headlines, but Ladd was not forced to resign. It was decided that Berkeley had not propagated socialism, that Ladd himself had not sought to do so, and that the faculty were not responsible for the content of or reaction to the lecture—though the offending lecture was declared ill-advised and it was decided that it would have been Ladd’s responsibility to prevent it if he had known its content beforehand. A motion was put forward by several trustees (notably Judge Greene, who was on the above committee) requesting Ladd’s resignation in June 1920. This, however, appears to have been motivated by his combative response to the trustee’s recommendations following the committee’s report and questions over whether or not he respected the rules of Berkeley’s charter, rather than culpability for the initial affair.1 A compromise was reached where Ladd worked with an advisory committee of sorts. All in all, he weathered the assault, oversaw Berkeley’s move to Yale, and served as Dean until his death in the early 1940s, inspiring an uncommon loyalty in the student body.

Now, I’ve only recently learnt all of this due to trawling around the Berkeley Archives, looking for something completely different.2 It’s a fascinating event in many ways, and I believe it could serve as an excellent case study for a particular kind of Church conflict. I want to devote this post, however, to one aspect of the story—one which is both small and essential. Specifically, I want to look at one of the apparent causes behind it. (It may be worth emphasizing at this point that I am not a historian, so please be on the look out for any clear methodological errors.)

Before getting to this cause, it might be important to emphasize just how much of a mess the whole thing was. Indeed, Kafka himself would have been proud of the typed minutes from the committee’s various sessions. The first was a public forum on December 29th, 1919, which Ladd avoided and where disgruntled persons were allowed to voice their accusations whilst others offered defense. A significant amount of time was dedicated to the fact that a) there was almost no one present who had both atrended the lecture and wished to testify against Ladd or the school, anever b) that the accusers present didn’t see why this was a problem. To give an example of the tenor of the event, here’s an exchange between Judge Gardinier Greene—no ally of Ladd’s by any stretch—and a representative of the Middletown Chamber of Commerce, which had tried to gather evidence against the school:

Mr Rice: The evidence has been presented.

Judge Greene: It has not been presented. We are not trying [this matter] on hearsay. Produce your witnesses. You haven’t the faintest conception of justice.3

To make matters worse (and funnier), the Chamber of Commerce had formed a two person ‘committee’ to investigate the matter—but the two had at no point communicated with each other and ended up reaching entirely different conclusions. The forum thus begins with the first appointee attempting to condemn Ladd for propagating socialism (without being able or willing to name a single person willing to make the accusation) and ends with their other appointee saying that he was unable to find any grounds for accusation and expressing general confusion as to why people were so angry.

The second session, meanwhile, took place at BDS itself on January 19th, 1920, and consisted of the committee interviewing Ladd, his wife, students, and faculty. Again, no one really has a clue what’s going on. The session begins with a misunderstanding: Ladd had requested that to committee be formed to investigate what definite charges had been made against him, but all present understood this to mean different things. The committee began under the assumption that Ladd knew which charges had been made, and that he’d requested them to investigate them in particular—Ladd had intended to request that the committee investigate whether definite charges had been made, then determine whether they were accurate. As such, Ladd is on the defensive from the start, and sounds like he thinks committee has come to see itself as the Spanish Inquisition. The committee, meanwhile, has no idea why he is so defensive, or why he demands that they state explicitly what definite charges have been made against him or the school. The minutes might as well be from The Trial:

Ladd: Haven’t I the right to ask for some definite form in which that charge should come?

Mr. Mansfield: I told you, it does not come in any definite charge; there has been no definite charge stated that we have;… we ask for definite form, but they were not made.4

This confusion is eventually cleared up by Mrs. Ladd, who appears to have a firmer grasp on the situation than anyone else.

The point of going through all of this is to show how incredibly disorganized the whole thing was, and so to point at how odd it is that it was a thing at all. Yes, there were members of the press who clearly had it in for Ladd, and yes, the Chamber of Commerce had attempted (somewhat ineptly) to take on the mantle of Crusaders for Americanism. There was also, according to a student at the time, a strained relationship between Middletown and BDS, arising from the fact that the school had started to look beyond the town in terms of both location and theological horizon.5 A certain amount of ill-will had also been stirred up by the fact that a graduate of BDS had married the niece of a prominent Portland family, that he had been a socialist, and that the family had resented what they saw as the derailing of their daughter’s life.6 But the fact that there were those who saw socialism as a threat was not by itself enough to cause all the trouble which came about (indeed, several of those involved who thought the whole controversy nonsense were adamantly opposed to socialism). And there have been disconnects between parish and town since time immemorial. None of this alone is enough to make a ‘controversy.’

The driving force within it all instead becomes clear in the collected correspondence relating to the controversy. Over the course of this correspondence, one name pops up with alarming regularity: Richard Lawrence deZeng.7 He is not marked out by thinking that Bolshevism is an abomination and that its propagation has no place in a Divinity School (Judge Greene, cited above, makes it very clear that he too is of this opinion throughout his conversations with Ladd, but ultimately comes to the conclusion that the particular accusations against the school are more or less without merit—even though he appears to have later called for Ladd’s resignation on an entirely different basis). He is instead marked out by the zeal with which he attacks Ladd personally and the way that he presents himself as saving and preserving Berkeley from what is beyond question its decay and corruption. Although he was not actually present at the lecture as far as I can tell, deZeng’s name signs off a flurry of letters to bishops and local figures, attempting to collect information and organize a campaign against Ladd. He presented a broadside assault against Ladd at the session on December 29th (the only person to present a full written condemnation), then wrote to the committee and bishops between sessions, working hard to paint Ladd in the least flattering light possible. On 1921, as the controversy was drawing to a close, he authored a final shot at Ladd under the title ‘Lovers of a Pure Gospel Speak in Behalf of Berkeley: An Analysis of the Conditions at Present Existing at Berkeley Divinity School.’ In this he writes that ‘Satan has come into Berkeley in an effort to injure it,’8 and that ‘Dean Ladd is fast changing it to Berkeley SOCIALISTIC-DIVINITY SCHOOL with the Devil’s Doctrine predominating over Christ’s Doctrine, and we see Anti-Christ ruling at Berkeley.’9 He only just stops short of calling Ladd and his faculty satanists.10

Now, even in my relatively brief time on this earth, I’ve met quite a few people who fit the picture of Richard L. deZeng suggested here, both progressive and conservative, both inside and outside of the Church (it is worth noting again that it is not deZeng’s conservatism which marks him out here—in another context, the role he plays here can just as easily be played by a person with liberal views). To ever-so-slightly caricature the picture above, I’ve met people who will claim the defense of an institution as their life’s work, and seek to destroy anyone who gets in the way of their vision for that institution. I’ve met people who become so wrapped up in their vendettas that they really do believe themselves to be God’s prophets—and his language does increasingly reach for the heights of prophetic utterance. I’ve met people who can in the same breath say both ‘the pure Gospel must not be mixed with politics’ and then state that ‘the only economy acceptable to the Lord of liberty is Americanism and capitalism.’11 This is not a matter of moral judgement; it is not a question of being a good or bad person, and the qualities which manifest in this way can be excellent qualities to have on one’s side (Athanasius, for example, seems to have had a similar temperament! And I can imagine that deZeng himself was quite a force for the Connecticut Humane Society). But allowing that this is not a question of intrinsic moral value, it is still the case that individuals fitting this description can destroy others when the right conditions align. They can destroy institutions. And they can do so with authentic zeal and piety.

The question which kept bothering me, though, as I read through all this, was why? Yes, in many ways, the answer might seem obvious: deZeng was a theological conservative who rightly or wrongly saw his Gospel corrupted by a new Dean. He had great nostalgia for the stable reigns of the previous deans, and he probably genuinely believed that socialism was of the Devil. His character seems to have disposed him to this sort of conflict. But so were many others in the area, and these people had to be roused by deZeng. These qualities by themselves do not seem to me sufficient to explain his commitment to seeing Ladd removed.

The answer is, I think, to be found in the earliest document available in the archives of the controversy. Written in May 1919, it’s a letter from deZeng to Bishop Chauncey Brewster of the Diocese of Connecticut, complaining about Ladd’s management of Church of the Epiphany in Durham (of which deZeng appears to have been an officer and over which Ladd was Arch-Deacon, apparently by virtue of his position at Berkeley12). DeZeng had been at Epiphany for forty-five years, and at the time of writing it was under the stewardship of a ‘Minister-in-Charge,’ Percy Binnington (deZeng is very careful to specify that Binnington was ‘minister’ in charge, not ‘priest,’ or ‘rector’). The vestry had proposed moving the afternoon service so that it could schedule its Sunday School earlier in the day in the hope of attracting more members, a move which Binnington opposed for undisclosed reasons. Having raised this issue in correspondence, deZeng was called to meet with Ladd, who asked him not to attend the parish meeting at which the issue will be decided—it being clear that Ladd has decided to support Binnington in the conflict which had arisen between the two. DeZeng did not respond well to this, and though the Sunday School is eventually rescheduled, he writes a letter of complaint to Ladd, a copy of which he also sent to Binnington. Binnington’s response, which deZeng copied into his letter to the Bishop, is brutal:

My Dear Mr deZeng,

Thank you very much for the copy of the letter you sent to the Arch-Deacon. It is most amusing. I read it to my wife, and she voted it quite the funniest composition she had read for a long time.

We have tried to picture the Arch-deacon and Mrs. Ladd as they read it; it must have afforded them considerable amusement.

Thanking you once again for the copy,

Faithfully yours,

Percy M. Binnington.13

Now, I’m going to be as charitable to Ladd and Binnington here as possible. The account in deZeng’s letter is incoherent in several places, and at once crucial juncture relies on innuendo to make its point as to whether Ladd ‘ordered’ members of the parish to do things his way. It certainly seems likely that deZeng is not telling the whole story in his letter—and even if we assume that Binnington was the worst priest that ever there was (something which deZeng himself denies, citing Binnington’s exemplary character earlier on), a response such as the above does not come out of a vacuum. It also seems likely that deZeng had already asserted himself as a thorn in Binnington’s side in a way which any priest with a parish officer used to ruling the roost will recognize. And there comes a point in such conflict where all one feels able to do is say ‘to hell with it,’ recognize enemies as enemies, and marshal the troops accordingly.

Finally, it seems plausible that a conflict of some sort between deZeng and Ladd would have eventually taken place anyway, irrespective of the matter at Epiphany—they appear to have been two constitutionally incompatible men trying to forge different paths in a close environment ripe for confrontation. And it is worth noting that Ladd himself may have perceived himself to have had little involvement in this particular affair: indeed, he appears to make reference to this in conversation with the committee, saying ‘as to the local situation, it is altogether pretty much a matter of common knowledge that in Middletown there has been a bitter personal feud between two sections of the Church; I certainly have kept out of that and even if I wanted to get into it… I didn’t have the time.’14 It may well be that he was completely unaware of Binnington’s letter, and did not know quite how wounded deZeng had been by his (perceived or actual) slighting—his own response to deZeng’s letter of complaint (also copied in the letter to Bishop Brewster) is far more sensitive than Binnington’s, though it certainly couldn’t be described as warm.

However: even given the most charitable of interpretations, it seems clear enough that both Binnington and (to a lesser extent) Ladd’s treatment of deZeng here was inadequate on several counts. On a pragmatic level, it either made or solidified an enemy.15 Once his pride has been slighted this way, deZeng would have hammered Ladd no matter what happened—he only needed an excuse, and it just so happened to be on the matter of socialism. On an administrative level, it was unnecessary—as far as I can tell from deZeng’s letter, reading it with very suspicious eyes, he was probably right about the particular issue at hand.16

Finally, on a spiritual level, it was un-Christian: for all his apparent faults, and though I imagine he was probably a hard man to work with, deZeng was dedicated to the same Church which mattered so very much to Ladd and Binnington. And though I do not know what happened between the relevant parties prior to his letter to Bishop Brewster—it is easy to imagine how things might have already deteriorated beyond repair—this is still no way to pastor a perceived belligerent within a parish community. It would surely not have cost that much to allow deZeng to feel respected, to be kind to him, to attempt to built a good enough relationship that both parties might one day be transformed (this is said imagining the most intransigent of parish tyrants). And even if that hope is idealistic, aren’t Christian relationships grounded in the hope of the resurrection? As it is, Ladd seems to have gained an enemy for life—not necessarily through his own fault, but certainly through over the course of a series of unnecessary action. This is not to say that deZeng bears no responsibility for his own conduct, of course. It is to say that, irrespective of his actions, Ladd and Binnington could have played a better pastoral role.

Here, then, is the lesson of this whole affair—or at least, the one which strikes me as most pertinent from the perspective of those who wish to go into Church leadership. When we meet Richard deZengs in our life (which we will), we must not dismiss them. We must not be unkind to them, in full awareness of how easy it is to be unkind to those who have pride and hold grudges. And if they are likely to take offense at anything other than complete deference to their authority, we must figure out how to develop humility with an acute and respectful pastoral sensibility. We may have gotten to the point where we feel incapable of patience or kindness, where it is practically impossible to muster up any good will. But we must not allow ourselves to get into that space of thinking ‘oh for goodness sake, do they really think they run this place?’ It is the easiest thing to do. In some ways, it can seem justified—even in this first letter, deZeng manifests an imperious and puritanical streak which doesn’t seem overly cognizant of compromise as an option, whilst members of a parish should not act as fiefs in any circumstance. But given that such spiritually unhealthy behavior shouldn’t be allowed to go unchecked, we must still cut through the false dichotomy of permissiveness and suppression/hostility. Because if we attempt to suppress, we will only the make the kinds of enemies which eventually cause controversies and lead to schism (this holds even if things would be the same anyway). And this may well come back to haunt either ourselves or those who choose to support us. DeZeng may have only caused Ladd annoyance in the end, of course—but I know of other individuals who have had far more success in their vendettas.

The Socialist Controversy at BDS was a complete mess. It may have come to pass no matter what, and it may be that Richard deZeng (for all his energy) was ultimately irrelevant to its happening. Indeed, it may well be the case that my interpretation of the course of events is completely mistaken. But when looking back on these events, it is very much worth trying to glean some lessons. And one of the lessons from this controversy is that when we meet our deZengs—however irredeemable we might judge them to be, however little patience we might have, and however excusable our finally lashing out at them might be—we must not make the mistake of trying to shut them down or cold-shoulder them. Every human person has gifts which can be employed for the flourishing of Christ’s Church, and it is better that those gifts be used to build it up than to tear it down. Every person must therefore be known in loving relationship, however strained, however difficult. Every person must be treated with love and kindness. Attempting to build these relationships can be a hard things to do, of course, and may be fruitless in the end. But if you ever get the chance to read through the documents relating to BDS’ Socialist Controversy, to read Ladd’s weariness, deZeng’s zeal, and the utter vanity (in the Ecclesiastes sense of the word) of the whole affair—if you ever get the chance to read all this, I think you’ll agree that attempting to build such relationships is worth the effort. On the one hand, we might otherwise find ourselves fighting for our jobs after innocuous talks on potentially controversial subjects. On the other, it is the only way to build up Christ’s Church.

  1. C.f. RG 216, Box 10, Minutes of Trustees Meetings 1900-1921. It is interesting that Greene makes no further appearance after the appointment of this committee, but no reference is made to his either resigning from the board or passing away.
  2. All the relevant information can be found in the Yale Divinity School Special Collections library, specifically Research Group 216: Berkeley Divinity School Archives (boxes 1 and 2) and Research Group 136: The William Palmer Ladd Papers (Boxes 1 and 6).
  3. RG 136, Box 6, Folder 4. Minutes of the Session on December 29th, p22
  4. Research Group 136, Box 6, folder 5. Minutes of Committee Session on January 19th, page 6.
  5. January 19th, 76-7.
  6. Much time was devoted to investigating the character of this student, and it was ultimately concluded that this was time wasted which was (in any case) entirely irrelevant to the question at hand.
  7. If anyone reading this related to or know Mr. deZeng, I should say here that none of this is intended to assault his character. From what I can gather he was a complicated who had a peculiar set of characteristics which made him both a formidable opponent and a valuable ally. It is clear that he had the respect and loyalty of many lay people in his church, and there is surely another, better rounded portrait which could be painted of him.
  8. p18. This whole pamphlet can be found in RG 216, Box 2, Folder 49.
  9. pp.15-6
  10. Indeed, I am not entirely unconvinced that he was not responsible for the anonymous note sent to Ladd, along with a damning newspaper editorial, saying ‘a man entertaining such opinions should not continue the sacred mission of a priest and is absolutely unfit to train other men for this holy mission… It is a pity you cannot be shipped abroad.’ This is nothing but speculation on my part, and it is rendered less likely by the fact that the letter was sent from Bristol, CT. The tone and language are in keeping with deZeng’s other writing, however, and no other figure emerges as bearing the same peculiar vitriol to Ladd in particular.
  11. The point being the logical contradiction, not that being a conservative in this way prevents one from being a Christian! (Though from a personal point of view, I would certainly argue against the compatibility of Christian ethics with Americanist Capitalism.)
  12. I am unsure of this last part, but it is certainly intimated in the letter.
  13. RG 136, Box 6, Folder 4: Report to Bishop Brewster, May 1919.
  14. RG 136, Box 6, Folder 6. Minutes of the Committee session on January 24th, p. 113. There’s a chance that this refers to something which has nothing to do with deZeng, but he was also warden at Holy Trinity Parish in Middletown as well as being involved in the running of Church of Epiphany in Durham.
  15. This is said with all awareness of how impossibly difficult these situations can be to navigate. I’m sure many reading know how fast things can spiral out of hand when offense has been received without knowledge of its being given, and how hard it can be to notice in the middle of an extremely busy schedule packed with other commitments.
  16. It is also worth saying both that this was also a minor issue on Ladd’s radar at the time and he may have had to choose a side in this particular instance
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