Navigating the Waters of Faith and Politics: By What do we Chart our Course?

As the electoral process continues on, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to apply my faith to the decisions that I make in the political realm – especially as I am bombarded by rhetoric and behavior that disturbs me deeply. It is easy to compartmentalize these things and I think that we do a disservice to ourselves and the community around us when we do so. I found Spencer’s blog post from last week -“At the Intersection of Faith and Public Life” – very useful in my thinking and praying. It has prompted me to consider again the promises we make in the baptismal covenant and the way in which those promises can impact the choices we make in our day-to-day lives. While away at our diocesan annual clergy conference this week, we had the chance to preview Bishop Sutton’s forthcoming pastoral letter to the diocese entitled “Challenging the Politics of Division”. I hope you’ll read it when it comes out and is posted on the diocesan website.

How do we navigate the waters of faith and politics? How do we chart our course – especially when the waves get rough?

For many Episcopalians, the engagement of our scriptures, tradition and reason are actively utilized to help guide and sustain us in our efforts to love God and love our neighbor. I wonder what guides you. Having just come from an experience of clergy conference with a pretty diverse gathering of leaders (which includes age, race, gender, sexual orientation, theological, political and geographical viewpoints), I am struck by the vast richness of how these practices can lead people (in this case the clergy of our diocese) to widely different ways of being in the world. Yet all are faithful efforts to follow Jesus in the complicated world that we live in today.

In the Episcopal Church calendar, yesterday was the feast day for Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954). She is just one of many in a great cloud of witnesses that make up the tradition that we call the church. You may not agree with all of the choices that she made in her life, but it is tough to argue that she did not live faithfully and as good steward of the gifts she was given by God. If you are at all interested in history, I invite you to read this more detailed account of her life and witness.

Julia Davida Scudder—“Vida”—was born in India in 1861, the only child of David Coit Scudder and Harriet Dutton Scudder. Her father, David, was a Congregationalist missionary who died by drowning shortly after her birth. Her mother returned with baby Vida to Massachusetts after his tragic death. Born into a family of acclaim, power and wealth, both the Dutton and the Scudder families were “prominent old Boston families”.[1] With strong influences from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and most importantly her mother, Vida grew into an active, intelligent, yet shy, young person. She was confirmed with her mother into the Episcopal Church in the mid 1870s at Trinity Church in Boston.[2] She traveled avidly throughout Europe with her mother and other family members and was the product of private education at institutions like Girls’ Latin, Smith College, and Oxford University.[3] Vida lived a life marked with privilege throughout her formative years, but her early family life planted seeds of service that would bear much fruit in the future.

It was while studying at Oxford that she was exposed to harsh social critics like John Ruskin, whose writings led to the development of the British Labour Party and the Christian Socialist movement.[4] Vida returned home to America with hopes of finding a means to participate in work for radical reform, which led to her joining the Salvation Army.[5] She was plagued by the privileged system in which she was enmeshed, sought ways to break out of this unjust social system, and finally found a means to channel this energy as an instructor in English Literature at Wellesley College in 1887.[6] She was granted a full professorship in 1910, and remained there until her retirement, after forty-one total years of teaching.[7] Her vocation as teacher led her to reach out to the world and be a force for social change. Teaching would remain a foundation through which she would go on to accomplish so much more in service to the church and the world.

Aware of the privilege her class, education, and social status allowed her, Scudder was tormented by the poverty and injustice in the world around her. In her first years at Wellesley, she helped to found college settlement houses in New York, and later in Philadelphia and Boston. These settlement houses were part of a much larger movement that brought together college students and the poor to live and work with one another.[8] Considered a pioneer in this movement, Scudder spent a lot of time working in these communities and found that her faith was transformed through the experience. As she built relationships with those who were impoverished, and came to understand their plight and the societal structures that perpetuated this plague of poverty, Scudder began to understand her Christian values anew. The struggle and inner angst that she felt because of the privilege that she had been granted began to dissipate as she found ways to work for social justice. “She found among the poor a patience, amiability, and hospitality that amazed and humbled her, and she began to ask new questions: Is voluntary charity to relieve the consequences of social inequality a sufficient expression of Christian social conscience”?[9] Might there be other ways of witnessing to the Gospel that entailed working for radical social revolution? Might transformation of the world through the radical restructuring of our social system be part of Christian social witness?

Scudder and others working with the settlement house movement began to see that unionization of the workers was critical for any real change to occur.[10] As she was pulled into the realm of political leadership in the labor unions, she began to ever more clearly understand the class struggle.[11] It was in 1889 that Scudder began involvement as a charter member of the Christian Socialist Society. Working closely with William Dwight Porter Bliss, a priest and reformer in his own right, Scudder became involved with the Episcopal Church of the Carpenter. In addition to Bliss’s congregation, Scudder also participated in the Brotherhood of the Carpenter, which brought together people of faith to discuss the applicability of Christian principles to present day social issues.[12]

Scudder assisted in formation of the Episcopal Church Socialist League in 1911.[13] After much deliberation, she also officially joined the Socialist Party that year. In 1912, she participated in the presidential campaign on behalf of the Christian Socialist Fellowship.[14] She also spoke at the well-known textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. This strike drew national attention when police brutality became an issue, as women gathered for months in protest of low wages and work conditions.[15] Scudder worked to help found the Church League for Industrial Democracy. She did so “as a means of uniting radical and liberal Christians committed to the cause of social justice but wary of supporting any one political creed”.[16]

During her involvement in this Christian Socialist reform, she brought a lot of attention to herself and to Wellesley College. As she spoke out against social injustice and called the College to accountability, there was pressure for Scudder to resign her post as faculty in the English Department. Though in the early part of her career she considered such requests from the College Administration and outsiders, as she grew in confidence, presence, and voice such requests meant less and less to her.[17] Throughout her vocation as professor and reformer, Scudder wrote prolifically. She authored plays, journal articles, submissions to the Christian Socialist publication The Dawn, a wide range of literary criticism, and books like Socialism and Character and Franciscan Adventure.[18] Writing was a significant contribution in Vida Scudder’s life—whether it was in the form of persuasive letter writing campaigns or printed lectures on social reform, scholarly spiritual writings on the life of saints Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena, or her autobiographical memoirs. Scudder very much lived out her faith in the written word.

Faith had been an important part of Scudder’s life since her childhood, with a father who was a Congregational missionary and a mother who was confirmed with her in the Episcopal Church. After suffering an emotional and physical breakdown in 1901, Scudder took a trip to Italy to recover.[19] On this trip, she discovered the rich spiritualities of both Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena and forged for herself a grounded and mature life of faith.[20] When she returned to America, she was even more involved with the Christian Socialist movement and the Companions of the Holy Cross, which she joined in 1889. These Episcopal women lived a strict monastic rule of life outside the walls of the cloister and were devoted to serving those in need.[21] Throughout her life—up until her death at age 93—Scudder lived a passionate life of faith. She sought to follow Jesus and the teachings of the church and felt that she could do so best as a socialist. As Scudder writes, “unless I were a socialist, I could not honestly be a Christian”. [22]

While the context of Vida Scudder’s life may feel foreign to many today, this convergence of faith and political practice in Christian Socialism is a significant part of the history of the Episcopal Church and the Church of England. Her life is only one of countless examples of the saints of God working to share the love of Jesus in a way that changes the world.

Is God calling you to connect your faith and public life in a way that changes both you and world around you? If so, what would that look like?



[1] Richard Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerrdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 221.

[2] David Hein and Gardiner Shattuck Jr., The Episcopalians (New York, NY: Church Publishing Inc, 2004) 290.

[3] Theresa Corcoran, Vida Dutton Scudder (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1982) 3.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] David Hein and Gardiner Shattuck Jr., The Episcopalians (New York, NY: Church Publishing Inc, 2004) 290.

[8] Richard Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerrdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 22.

[9] Ibid., 221.

[10] Theresa Corcoran, Vida Dutton Scudder (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1982) 5.

[11] Ibid., 5.

[12] Ibid., 6.

[13] Harold Lewis, Christian Social Witness (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2001) 61.

[14] Robert Prichard, History of the Episcopal Church (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse

Publishing, 1991) 180.

[15] Theresa Corcoran, Vida Dutton Scudder (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1982) 55-56.

[16] Theresa Corcoran, Vida Dutton Scudder (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1982) 9.

[17] Richard Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerrdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 222.

[18] Theresa Corcoran, Vida Dutton Scudder (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1982) 10.

[19] David Hein and Gardiner Shattuck Jr., The Episcopalians (New York, NY: Church Publishing Inc, 2004) 290.

[20] Richard Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerrdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 224.

[21] Ibid., 223.

[22] Ibid., 223.


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