Father James O.S. Huntington

In our last post for Christ the King Sunday we published an excerpt from Donald B. Kraybill’s book “The Upside-Down Kingdom”. Among other things we read there:

In broad strokes, most biblical scholars agree that the “kingdom of God” means the dynamic rule or reign of God. The reign involves God’s intentions, authority, and ruling power. It doesn’t refer to a territory or a particular place. Nor is it static. It’s dynamic— always becoming, spreading, and growing.4 The kingdom points us not to the place of God but to God’s ruling activities. It is not a kingdom in heaven, but from heaven—one that thrives here and now. The kingdom appears whenever women and men submit their lives to God’s will. … Although a kingdom is a social order beyond any person, indi­viduals do make choices about kingdoms. We embrace or reject them. We serve or mock them. We enter kingdoms and leave them. We pledge our allegiance to them and turn our backs on them.

Today we would like to write about someone who in his own unique way made suchHuntington choice and submitted his life to God’s will, Fr. James Otis Sargant Huntington. His was commemorated yesterday in the Episcopal Church.

James Huntington, at his funeral called by the Presiding Bishop “the best loved priest in the Episcopal Church”, was born in Boston in 1854, the younger son of Frederick Dan and Hannah Huntington. While he was a child his father, a Unitarian minister, converted to the Episcopal Church, and in quick succession was ordained deacon and priest, and then consecrated the first Bishop of Central New York.

When he was 26 years old his father ordained him a deacon and then later, a priest. He began work among working-class immigrants from Eastern Europe on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Soon after his ordination, he attended a retreat in Philadelphia and began to feel called to the monastic life. He considered joining the Society of St. John the Evangelist – an English order that had recently established a province in the United States, but believed it important to function in an indigenous American community. To that end, he and two colleagues came to minister at Holy Cross mission with the Sisters of St. John the Baptist on New York’s lower east side immigrants, paying particular attention to the needs of immigrant children. Parenthetically, to this day the cross given to the Order’s life professed members is the cross given to novices of the Sisters of St. John Baptist. In 1881 he founded the Order of the Holy Cross, the first male religious order in the Episcopal Church to succeed (after two aborted attempts in the 1840s) with two companions, Robert Dod and James Cameron. Or actually, as Br. Adam D. McCoy, OHC writes in his sermon,

Fr. Huntington did not “found” the Order of the Holy Cross.  It arose from a conversation he had with Fr. Robert Stockton Dod …  They were joined by Fr. James Cameron.  When the three of them began the Order’s life in the autumn of 1881, it was Fr. Dod who led the way in the formation of community life.  It was Dod who consulted the experts in England, who wrote the first Rule, and who led them in the early days. [Yet] … just a year later,  Fr. Dod entered into a cycle of chronic illness that turned out to be both emotional and physical.  For the next year and a half, his illness was the constant backdrop to their community life, and Fr. Cameron left a year later, in October, 1883.  By March, 1884, Fr. Dod had left as well, leaving Fr. Huntington alone of the first three.

Alongside his activities within the Order, Fr. Huntington worked on the social plain. He became involved in the labor union and land-tax movements, and was later a founder of the Church Association for the Advancement of the Interests of Labor, as well as an early member of the Knights of Labor. He stood up with labor union organizers for workers rights, helping to establish the Episcopal Church’s involvement in social issues and ministries. It was before any Christian social action or Christian social service societies existed. Father Huntington was thus a pioneer.

“There is no direct evidence that he ever read the theological works of Frederick Denison Maurice, as his father certainly had, but the influence of Christian socialism is obvious through the father to the son. Like Bishop Huntington, Maurice had made his way into the Church from Unitarianism, just twenty five years earlier. James never endorsed the socialist doctrine of public ownership, nor did his father, but both of them stood on much the same doctrinal ground that Maurice and Charles Kingsley had described.” (Source:  Fletcher J., Father Huntington, the National Council 1958, p. 7-8)

“Huntington, an Anglo-Catholic, was as theologically conservative as he was socially liberal. He taught that the sacramental life was the motivating force behind the reconciliation of all races and classes. He also embraced monasticism in large part because of his commitment to the world beyond the monastery walls. Only through rigorous self-denial and total devotion of self, he believed, could one truly serve the poor and work to ameliorate the problems of society. During the summer of 1889, he worked as a common laborer among farmworkers in western New York to understand their condition more fully. Huntington’s reading tastes were wide-ranging; he read not only theology and church history but also the latest work of socialist and progressive writers. He campaigned for better conditions for working men and women, and he longed to see the church become, in his words, “the great Anti-Poverty Society.” The church must be on the side of the poor, he said, “if she is going to live at all.”
Source: The Episcopalians by David Hein and Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr.

In 1884 Father Huntington took his final or full vows, but four years passed since another monk joined him. The act roused tremendous controversy in the church about monastic orders and permanent vows. The opposition was led by the Presiding Bishop Lee of Delaware. They thought that there was no place in the Episcopal Church for monastic life. Many are still doubtful about the issue, yet the Order of the Holy Cross survived.

In the 1890s the Order moved to Westminster, Maryland, and shortly after to West Park. The focus of Father Huntington’s ministry shifted then from social issues to building the order, whose members didn’t always share his great enthusiasm for social work and felt the need to concentrate more on spiritual life. Torn between two dimensions that constituted his vision, Fr. Huntington decided to stay with the order and work for its future, never changing his convictions about social matters and the importance of the church’s role in them, however.

The cornerstone for the Order’s monastery, which now serves as its guest house, was laid in 1902, and the building was finished in 1904. Designed by Gothic-Revival Architect Henry Vaughan, it was the first building built for an Anglican religious order since the reign of Henry VIII. Father Huntington also founded a number of schools and a mission in Liberia.


Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC at a trip to Slovakia with us

Huntington was Superior of the order for several non-consecutive terms and wrote its second rule in 1901. The rule “had a Franciscan flavor … it was also Benedictine in its monastic discipline.” (Fletcher J., ibid.)  He devoted himself chiefly to preaching, teaching, and counselling until his death on 28 June 1935.

We encountered the Order of the Holy Cross personally thanks to meeting its present superior, Br. Robert Sevensky, who visited Poland at the turn of August and September. We wrote about this here. You can also find there basic information about the Order today. We stay in touch with Br. Robert via email – we usually write about the activities of the Polish Episcopal Network, and he about his work in the Order. We have to admit that both the Anglo-Catholic and Christian-socialist roots of the Order of the Holy Cross apeal to us very much. Who knows, if not for our membership in the Ecumenical Order of the Mariavites, and the distance to the order’s centres, we might have thought about becoming its associates. The distance doesn’t preclude union in prayer, however, to which we cordially encourage.

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