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Canon Bernard Iddings Bell

Warden of St. Stephen’s College

As for what the Church thinks and says, what influence does that have on the handling of American politics, the conduct of American education, the regulation of marriage and divorce, on sex and drink, on how industrial disputes are settled, on how we carry on business? As a plain matter of fact, religion in this country is generally regarded as a tolerated pastime for such people as happen to like to indulge in occasional godly exercises — as a strictly private matter in an increasingly close-knit and socially acting society — in other words, as something that does not count. I should like to see the Church recognize that it has been pushed into the realm of the non-essentials, and to persuade it to fight like fury for the right and the duty to bring every act of America and Americans before the bar of God’s judgment. [Christian leaders] are making valiant claim to such a right and duty; but the great mass of Church members are content to regard the Church as a conglomerate of private culture clubs, nice for christenings, weddings and funerals. Most Church members readily agree with the unchurched majority that it is not the proper business of the Church to criticize America or Americans.
- Canon Bernard Iddings Bell

The Rev. Canon Bernard Iddings Bell and seems to have been something all too rare in the history of America: a wise and presient Episcopalian cleric (which is not to say we have had any more than a mere handful of wise and presient Catholic clerics in this land). Bell served as Warden of St. Stephen’s College – situated on the Hudson River here in New York – from 1919 to 1933, and is widely considered responsible for turning it into what was one of the best collegiate institutions in the country. In 1928, under Bell’s tenure, St. Stephen’s became a college of Columbia University, and this period of the College’s history was highly praised by the great Russell Kirk.

Kirk, in Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning, after positing his view of the ideal undergraduate college as a place of classical and liberal learning, takes note of St. Stephen’s. “There have been such colleges in this country,” Kirk wrote. “One such was St. Stephen’s College… when Dr. Bernard Iddings Bell was president. (He told me once that he gave up the presidency when strong objection was raised to his rule that the students should dress decently and rise when professors entered a room.)”

Of course, such arcadian days did not last. Only a year after Bell gave up the wardenship of St. Stephen’s in 1933, the college changed its name from honoring Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, to the more secular Bard College honoring the founder of the institution, John Bard. A mere ten years later in 1944, Bard College became coeducational and as such severed its relationship with Columbia University, becoming independent as a secular, nonsectarian liberal arts college ‘affiliated’ with the Episcopal Church. The once-great college has now declined to such an extent that a professorship there is now named in honor of Alger Hiss, the man who betrayed America to spy for Soviet Russia. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Kirk relates another anecdote of Dr. Bell:

Canon Bernard Iddings Bell once showed a visitor from England about the environs of Chicago. They drove past a handsome Gothic building of stone. “Is that a school?” inquired the visitor.

“Yes– a new one, ‘distressed’ to appear old,” Dr. Bell replied.

“Indeed! Who is the headmaster?”

“There is no headmaster.”

“Curious! A kind of soviet of teachers, I suppose.”

“There are no masters at all.”

“Really? Do the boys teach one another?”

“As yet, there are no students. Here in the United States, we proceed educationally in a way to which you are unaccustomed,” Canon Bell told his friend. “First we erect a building; then we obtain pupils; next we recruit teachers’ then we find a headmaster; and at last we determine what is to be taught. You begin at the other end in England.”

Again, a quote from Canon Bell:

We need to forget the imaginary Christ who has been ours too long and to rediscover the real Christ, the Christ of the prophets and the martyrs and the confessors, the Christ who is not only the lover of souls but also master, a monarch with demands to make in industry, in finance, in education, in the arts, in marriage, in the home; the Christ who is teacher of a social ideology which has eternal validity; the Christ who cries aloud with convincing force, ‘He who would save his life will lose it; only he who is willing to lose his life, can find it.’
This post was published on Monday, July 25th, 2005 1:39 pm. It has been categorised under Church New York and been tagged under .
Comments
  1. 7 December 2008
    10:27 pm

    Thanks for this info on Rev. Can. Bell. I picked up a used book by him “The Priestly Way,” a guided devotion for priests. I had no idea who he is/was, but now I believe he is an author worthy of reading and studying. I appreciate this post.

    Sincerely,

    Craig Stephans

  2. 4 August 2009
    10:54 pm

    Canon Bell has another distinction. He wrote what appears to be the first broadside at the decline of the American public schools. His book–”Crisis in education: A challenge to American complacency”–appeared in 1949!
    This book is now unavailable or extremely expensive. I know about it only because the second broadside — “Quackery in the Public Schools” by Albert Lynd, published 1951– strongly recommends Bell’s book. (I have recently placed on Amazon a review of Lynd’s Quackery book. It is wonderful, available cheaply, and I highly recommend it.)
    So here we are, 60 years after Bell’s attack, and the education establishment is still doing all the same dumb things. Alas.

  3. Fr. Phillip Ayers
    8 January 2011
    10:03 pm

    Mr. Cusack,
    I just discovered your website – very interesting! I have a copy of B.I. Bell’s “The Priestly Way”; in fact, I was going to give it to a friend being ordained priest (in the Episcopal Church) this very day. But I have thought better of it, as Bell’s reflections, which I knew would not be “relevant,” were a bit antique. Re: his ideas about clerical marriage, etc. He wrote it in 1938, and for my money (I don’t think I paid a cent for the book, but obtained it from a library’s discard pile), the introduction by Fr. Alan Whittemore of the Order of the Holy Cross (Episcopal Church) is worth more than Bell’s comments.
    I believe that Bell had much to do with the ministry to students at U. of Chicago. He was influential in a number of ways, I’m sure, maybe even to my NT professor who was graduated from there at the tender age of 18.
    I envy you, your association with U. of St. Andrews. At one time I was told I was descended from someone named “Ayers” in Edinburgh, but found out later that my family hails from Salisbury and made its way to the American colonies in the 17th century! Too bad, as I have a great love for Scotland and have spent some time in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Iona; I would go back in a shot, but age, lack of funds, and health issues prevent it right now.
    Thank you for your website! All the best for the New Year.
    Phillip Ayers

  4. 26 January 2011
    10:19 pm

    I was priviledged to sit week after week under Canon Bell’s homilies at the Bond Chapel Eucharist at the University of Chicago for near two years and to have profited from his sage counsel.
    I think it sad that Fr. Ayers thinks Canon Bell’s
    book on the priesthood irrevelent. Never was it more relevant than in this time of the decadence of the Church.
    Btw, I have nicked your page for the FaceBook Canon Bernard Iddings Bell page where a few of us stil remember him with fondness. He also plays a role in my new novel COSMOPOLITAN CLUB DOSSIER ( AVAILABLE AT AMAZON.COM )

  5. Patrick
    12 February 2013
    5:48 pm

    After my initial contact with Bell, I tracked down all of his books I could find on Amazon for under $15 per book. Most were pilfered from libraries. A shame, however judging by the cards they had not seen any reading.

    My first reading was Beyond Agnosticism. The first reaction I felt was that the man lent words to everything I ever saw and did not like about the American society in which I lived, although he watched it as storm clouds brewing.

    I am currently reading the Church in Disrepute. His theology seems radical today, unlike the new-age gnosticism being peddled by mainstream protestants and Vatican II nuns under the name of “radical theology.” This man is a great practitioner of truth. I hold him higher than Tillich, Belloc and even higher than Chesterton. To me he surpasses the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This man knows America and our problems like a brewer knows hops.

    Blessings for speaking his name. I hope that others find him and read him.

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