The Living Church

Year Article Type Limit by Author

The Living ChurchJanuary 10, 1999A Generous Spirit by Adam D. McCoy218(2) p. 13

"Love must act as light must shine and fire must burn." James Otis Sargent Huntington

James Otis Sargent Huntington, founder of one of the Episcopal Church's earliest religious communities, was born in 1854 into a cultured New England family. His father, Frederic, later Bishop of Central New York, lost his professorship at Harvard University when he renounced Unitarianism and became an Episcopalian. Huntington attended Harvard, then his father's diocesan seminary in Syracuse. After ordination he served congregations in Syracuse, but at a retreat at St. Clement's Church, Philadelphia, was convinced of a call to the religious life.

With two friends he established in 1881 a monastic house at the German immigrant work of the St. John Baptist Sisters in the Lower East Side of New York City. This grew into Holy Cross Church, from which the new order took its name. The friends left, others joined, but Fr. Huntington persevered, and on Nov. 25, 1884, took vows for life.

From the beginning the aim of the order was to be American, and both monastic and apostolic. It did not duplicate any existing Roman Catholic model of the religious life, but tried to establish a uniquely Episcopal form. During his profession retreat, Fr. Huntington wrote the rule of the order, reflecting both extreme austerity of life and lofty aspiration: "Love must act as light must shine and fire must burn."

Fr. Huntington was a tireless apostle for the Anglo-Catholic faith and for social justice. A co-founder of the Knights of Labor, and founder of the Church Association for the Advancement of the Interests of Labor, he was constantly traveling, speaking, organizing, encouraging and writing to further the interests of working people. His white habit was a well-known fixture on the stages at labor rallies, and his friendship with Henry George, American economist, lent a spiritual depth to the single tax movement.

Constantly preaching and leading parish and clergy retreats, he was a sought-after spiritual director and counselor. Thousands of people looked to him for direction and spiritual advice. He maintained a voluminous correspondence with hundreds of people, rarely ceasing to write as he rode the rails from one destination to another.

His was not a life without stress. He was tempted to leave the order for the rectorship of the Church of the Advent in Boston. He was in despair at several points over the inward-looking tendency of some of the brethren of the order. He suffered a depression which lasted for some years, and in the fashion of those days, was treated by taking a long, strenuous European journey. But he emerged from that period both stronger and gentler. His social activism had been institutionalized by the wider church, and the labor movement was established.

Fr. Huntington's achievement was both personal and institutional. His gentle character combined with a clear and firm vision of social justice, and helped to move the Episcopal Church from being a bastion of privilege to an advocate for the well being of working people. He showed many how to combine Christian holiness and Christian radicalism.

His generous spirit also showed in his community life. He loyally yielded when new leadership emerged, when new policies were decided, when new concerns came to the fore. His character made possible the Order of the Holy Cross, and influenced many more to the ideals of community life.

Anglo-Catholic Christianity, social justice and austere monastic community life were the triple pillars of his life and faith in Christ. All three were radically altered and strengthened by his ministry. But it is his purity of heart that his disciples remember most. At his deathbed in 1935, he is quoted as saying of his brethren, not all of whom he agreed with: "Tell them I love them. I will always intercede." o

The Rev. Adam D. McCoy, OHC, is the author of Holy Cross, A Century of Anglican Monasticism, and rector of St. Michael's Church, Anaheim, Calif.