|The Anglican Examiner, Copyright by Donn Mitchell, 2020
Gregory Baum, Catholics and Canadian Socialism: Political Thought in the Thirties and Forties (New York: Paulist Press, 1980).
Stanley P. Chyet, “The Political Rights of the Jews in the United States, 1776-1840,” Critical Studies in American Jewish History,
Vol. 2 (New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1958).
Episcopalians at Work in the World (New York: National Council of the Episcopal Church, 1949).
James E. Lindsley, This Planted Vine (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).
George Martin, Madam Secretary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976).
Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars (Basic Books, 1999).
Richard W. Pointer, Protestant Pluralism and the New York Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c 1988).
Vida Dutton Scudder, Father Huntington (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1940).
The Reminiscences of Frances Perkins, Columbia University Oral History Project, Vol. 1, Part I.
William Thomas Manning Papers, The General Theological Seminary Manuscript Collection.
James Grant Wilson, ed., The Memorial History of the City of New-York from its First Settlement to the Year 1892, Vol. 1
(New York: New-York History Company, 1892).
The analogy is tempting. But Perkins always insisted there was no guiding ideology to the New Deal. As
she saw it, they were just decent people trying to do the right thing, pretty much making it up as they went
That assessment bears the marks of humility that many who knew Perkins personally associate with her
basic character. But Mother Catherine Grace, the Superior of All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor, saw the hand
of God in all that “making it up as they went along.” She put it this way: “The Divine Architect used this
soul mightily. Frances Perkins was a sensitive instrument in His hands. She listened, she heard, and she
executed. Through this attentiveness, the Social Security Act came to fruition.”
To which one might add add that thanks to her willingness to be a sensitive and attentive instrument, eleven
thousand children who lost a mommie or a daddy on September 11, 2001, began receiving monthly Social
Security payments as soon as the loss of their parents was confirmed: neighbor helping neighbor,
automatically and efficiently, without even thinking about it. In a very real sense, these payments are an
outward and visible sign of America’s best self.
Surely Frances Perkins would agree.
|The New York Anglicans: Twenty Who Shaped the Twentieth Century
(continued from page three)
|The Anglican Examiner
Copyright by Donn Mitchell, 2020.
When FDR was elected governor in 1928, he appointed Perkins to head the state labor
department. As part of her work, she went to England twice to study the English
unemployment insurance system, managing to squeeze in sessions at the Anglo-
Catholic Summer School of Christian Sociology, which met at Keble College, Oxford
University. There she studied with the likes of William Temple, R.H. Tawney, T.S.
Eliot, and Dorothy Sayers.
When Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, Perkins would have the opportunity to
translate much of this British social theory into U.S. policy. All social policy came
under the purview of the Labor Department because there was no other place to put
it. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and its two current successors,
did not exist.
And whether she would like it or not, we can all rightly call Frances Perkins the
mother of the U.S. Social Security system. FDR had not actually committed to it
during the campaign, but he wanted Perkins in his cabinet. She had good reason to
stay put. Governor Lehman had asked her to stay on in New York. She had a
daughter in school and a husband in a sanitarium. She loved her work. She loved
New York, and she said in her reminiscences that she adored her little parish church,
the Church of the Resurrection in the East 70s near where she lived.
The American Federation of Labor opposed her appointment, but a number of
women’s groups were actively promoting it. And Charles K. Gilbert, by now
suffragan bishop of New York, told her he believed it was “God’s own call.”
And so a deal was struck. She told Roosevelt, if he wanted her in the cabinet, he
would have to commit to social insurance. He agreed to the terms but warned her that
he knew nothing about it. “You’ll have to invent the way to do these things, Frances.”
That would not be a problem. Horrified by the hazardous and cumbersome record-
keeping system in England, where secretaries with bottles of ink sat high on wobbly,
wooden stepladders and made manual notations on file cards stored in cardboard
boxes, Perkins had already approached IBM to ask if they had the capacity to develop
a record-keeping system that could accommodate a country with 130 million people.
They could. And when the time came, she had no trouble cornering Felix Frankfurter
at a party and asking, “How do we make this constitutional?”
Although it never paraded under the banner of a particular religious group, the
cause of social insurance was a religious quest for Perkins. She believed
insurance was the most moral concept humankind had ever developed because it
harnessed the generous impulse of neighbor to help neighbor with human
technical skill in the form of actuarial science. By applying human intelligence to
the best aspect of the human spirit, neighbor could help neighbor even before
Social insurance, i.e., state-sponsored insurance for virtually all citizens, was
even better, in her view, because it combined Anglicanism’s traditionally
affirmative view of the state as the instrument through which the community
expresses its shared values with an emphasis on the compassionate elements of
For Perkins, it was both a secularization and a socialization of what Catholic
tradition knows as the seven Corporal Works of Mercy: 1) to feed the hungry;
2) to give drink to the thirsty; 3) to clothe the naked; 4) to harbor the harborless;
5) to visit the sick; 6) to ransom the captive; and 7) to bury the dead.
In a pre-modern economy, such as Medieval Europe, these merciful deeds would
have been executed in kind, that is, a hungry person would be given food. But in
the money economy that evolved in the early modern period, mercy itself was
“monetarized.” Instead of giving food from agricultural surplus, a work of
mercy might consist of putting money into the hands of those who would
otherwise lack the means to acquire food. The same was true for shelter and the
other necessities of life.
The original vision of Social Security, which included health insurance, addressed most of these works of mercy. As it was finally enacted, the law extended
unemployment and workers compensation insurance to most workers, retirement pensions to virtually all elderly citizens, death benefits to cover burial expenses, aid to
families with dependent children, and stipends for children who lost a wage-earning parent. By guaranteeing income to persons who were no longer able to work or
otherwise pay their way, the law combined the Catholic ideals of mercy with the long-standing Protestant emphasis on personal responsibility. To give was an act of
mercy. To give money was to help people help themselves.
This concept also resonated deeply with Jewish ethical traditions. The idea that the employer should pay half the worker’s wages during times of involuntary
unemployment is clearly articulated in the Talmud, as is the assertion that the employer should compensate workers or their descendants for workplace injuries.
In promoting the Social Security Act when it was before Congress in 1935, Perkins described it as something of a “departure” for Americans. It was a departure in at
least two ways. Just as the Puritans had understood the universal church congregationally rather than globally, Americans had tended to understand community locally.
Indeed, social welfare needs had been a county responsibility ever since the young republic had dismantled the Anglican and Congregational establishments which
shouldered that responsibility in all but a few of the thirteen original colonies.
|“…be ye steadfast,
abounding in the work
of the Lord…”
In the New Deal view, people in Maine and California were “neighbors.” Ditto for New Yorkers and
Texans. “Community” would now be understood nationally, and social well-being would be a national
But the more significant departure may have been in the religious subtext implied in the New Deal’s
construction of the concept of community. In moving toward a gracious society cast in the image of a
gracious God, the New Deal was departing from the judging society cast in the image the judging (and
often angry) God of Puritanism and Reformed Protestantism.
|In the New Deal view,
people in Maine and California were
|Murder in the Cathedral
was the Federal Theatre Project's
first major success.
And consider also the content of some of these programs. The Federal Theatre Project developed and
produced plays covering topics such as the history of Catholicism in the Pacific Northwest. It had a
Yiddish theater unit. And the project’s first major success was, of all things, Murder in the Cathedral,
T.S. Eliot’s story of the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket, the beloved Archbishop of Canterbury, a story
with unique appeal for both Anglicans and Roman Catholics.
More generally, the modus operandi tended to appeal to relationship rather than moral principle. Perkins
exhibited it herself, even when she agreed with the moral principle. For instance, in defending the
decision to allow Emma Goldman to return to the United States, Perkins did not cite free speech, even
though she was a strong civil libertarian. Instead, she said, “She’s an old woman who just wants to see
her friends again before she dies. Can’t we allow her that?”
But it’s not just in Social Security that the values and patterns of New York’s religious culture made themselves felt. Consider some of the other programs the New
Deal created: the federal projects for artists, writers, and theater (Boston still had official censorship of the theater at this time); the archiving of church records
(including New York’s diocesan archives); the development of the Soundex system to aid genealogical research through the U.S. Census. All of these are all departures,
representing the valuation of the visual, the theatrical, the historical, and the relational so strongly present in Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism, and so
decidedly absent from much of Protestantism in those days.
In a similar vein, when the CEO of General Motors appeared in her office with his top labor policy
advisors in tow to demand that the federal government send in troops to end the sit down strike,
Perkins said, “Look, you’re the one who wants these people to work for you. I don’t care whether
they work for you or not. They’ve told you they don’t want to work for you on the terms you offer.
So go talk to them. Find out what they want, and see if you can’t offer them something that’s going
to make them want to work for you.”
The CEO’s policy advisors insisted that this simply could not be done. There was a vital principle at
stake, but she continued to discuss it in terms of relationship. They said, in effect, the government
should punish disobedience, and she said, in effect, the government should encourage reconciliation.
Perkins said the policy experts became ever-more abstruse in their theories until the CEO finally stood
up and said “I want to go back to Detroit and make automobiles. I can make automobiles under any
kind of labor policy!” She attributed this outcome to his realism. Others would have attributed it to
her tenacity. I once heard another biographer of Perkins liken her to a dog that gets hold of your
ankle and just will not let go. In her own view, though, she was most likely just following the advice
she gave her classmates at Mt. Holyoke in their final meeting before graduation, when she quoted St.
Paul’s text in 1 Corinthians, “…be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the
Lord…” The class chose “Be ye steadfast” as its motto.
We do not have time here to examine the religious backgrounds of the entire New Deal Brain Trust, but suffice it to say that the majority of them were New Yorkers
from the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Jewish communities. Of those who were not, most had either studied or taught at Columbia University. As noted earlier,
Columbia still had ties to the Episcopal Church in the first half of the twentieth century. The requirement that the president be a communicant of the Episcopal
Church was dropped only in 1948 to permit Dwight Eisenhower to assume the office. To this day, though, the president is an ex officio trustee of the cathedral.
And who was the Bishop of New York? William Thomas Manning had been rector of Trinity, Wall Street, from 1908 to 1921, and had become one of CAIL’s
leading advocates in the General Convention, the national governing body of the Episcopal Church. When he became Bishop of New York in 1921, he quickly
developed a reputation for being somewhat Laudian in his leadership style. He shared the martyred archbishop’s concern for the poor, but he was also seen as high-
handed, a charge leveled against both Laud and Charles I.
He was not the least bit shy with heads of state, especially those in his own flock. As bishop, he maintained a lively correspondence with both Franklin and Eleanor,
sometimes triggering decidedly testy responses on White House letterhead. And, of course, FDR himself was often accused of being high-handed and somewhat
Which leads us to a closing question? With its heritage of Tory Anglicanism in coalition with Roman Catholicism, is it fair to say that the New Deal was a
democratized Cavalier restoration on the western shores of the Atlantic with, perhaps, a Jewish twist? Whose or which happy days were here again? Was FDR a
nouveau Charles I and Manning his Laud?
The Corporal Works of Mercy:
1) to feed the hungry;
2) to give drink to the thirsty;
3) to clothe the naked;
4) to harbor the harborless;
5) to visit the sick;
6) to ransom the captive;
7) to bury the dead.
|Church of the Resurrection, Manhattan
Photo by Headcases
Wikis Take Manhattan, 2008
|Bibliography for Frances Perkins, The New York Anglicans