A Small, Historic Parish: Christ Church Middletown

Bill Sr:

            Christ Church, Middletown, N.J., is a remarkable parish.  Its history is a story in itself;  its founding in 1702;  traditions about Captain Kidd and his pirate gold, with conscience money given to the church by his mates;  the struggles during the Revolution and after.  It is also unique, when I first came to know it, in not having had a full time rector for a number of years.  He lived in the rectory but commuted like most of the men of the community to New York where he earned  his living.

            When he resigned, the vestry, sold on the idea of having a rector who earned most of his livelihood on a secular job, went out looking for one similarly placed.  So Egbert Swackhammer, clerk, dropped in at the WITNESS office in New York.  The upshot of it was that I agreed to take services, telling the vesty that after a few weeks of this they could decide whether they wanted me permanently and by then I would know whether I wanted to come.

            Meanwhile the bishop of New Jersey, Paul Matthews, nominated three clergymen from whom they were supposed to select one.  Since I was not on the list the vestry replied that none were acceptable.  This happened two or three times until the bishop asked them who they wanted.  He sent them a very nice letter, said that he had known me for some time, but tacked on a postscript:  ‘I think it is my duty to inform you that Mr. Spofford is a socialist.’

            ‘It’s all over,’ said Swack.  ‘Dexter Blagden will never stand for you after reading that.  There’s no sense in even showing him the letter.”

            My reply was that Blagden, a wealthy Wall Street broker who was senior warden, was entitled to see the letter.  Agreed, so the letter was handed to him after service.  He read it carefully then said: ‘Swack, it looks to me as though Paul Matthews doesn’t like Spofford.  If that’s so then, by God, let’s call him.’

            So I became rector, established my family in the rectory, and followed the example of my predecessor by commuting to my job in New York every day.  Parish life was routine–calls, services, Sunday School, Auxiliary meetings which I never once attended, and after awhile aforum with guest speakers where we debated the issues of the day.  Also I did my best in sermons to apply the principles of Christianity to current events.  They knew where I stood, and liked us, particularly my wife who did most of the parish work, even if they got stirred up on occasions by my sermons.

            But a showdown had to come eventually on how free the pulpit was to be.  Edward and Helen Lentilhon, in church every Sunday, had a party one Sunday afternoon.  It was a gay affair with music, champagne and lobster, attended for the most part by the moneyed people from nearby Rumson who were the intimates of the Lentilhons.  My seat at supper was between Mrs. George Dexter and Mrs. Edward Scudder, wife of the owner of a Newark newspaper.  Before long everyone at the table was panning Mrs. Dexter since she had let it be known that she was going to vote for Roosevelt rather than the Republican candidate.  So she turned to me for help:  ‘The rector here I’m sure agrees with me.”  My reply was: “Plague on both your houses; I’m voting for Norman Thomas.”

            A few days later the Lentilhons asked my wife and I to drop by.  Usually very warm and cordial, they were cold as inside a deep freeze.  They came to the point quickly:  their friends in Rumson were all agog over what I had said at their party.  over the bridge tables they were calling me the Red Rector of Middletown;  Mrs. Scudder was particularly sore and considered my remark a  a personal insult.  The proposal was made therefore that I should call upon her and apologize.  My reply was that I had been asked a question which I had answered honestly.  If Mrs. Scudder felt insulted that was for her to worry about, not me.  But I did suggest to the Lentilhons that if they wanted to invite their Rumson friends to church the following Sunday that I would elaborate on my remark. 1

            That Saturday I went to Hartford for the Trinity-Wesleyan football game.  It was close and I yelled.  Also I stayed up late that night, getting  back to Middletown on the milk train in the small hours.  A bit of sleep, then an attempt to clear my squeaking voice by sucking lemons.  The church was jammed with chairs in the aisles.  The Rumson crowd had responded.  I never spoke in a quieter voice — there was nothing else I could do after that football game.  So I read them the various resolutions on social issues that had been issued over a period of years by General Convention and in Pastorals by the House of Bishops: ’Christ Demands a New Order’; “an outstanding and pressing duty of the Church is to convince its members of the necessity of nothing less than a fundamental change in the spirit and working of economic life”; “the contrast between individuals want and collective plenty’ cannot be accepted as in accordance with the will of God.”

            These statements, I explained, were marching orders as far as I was concerned.  They did not have to accept them ifs they did not want to, but in that case they were the ones who were disloyal to the Church, not me.

            So the Lentilhons said that it was OK with them and were intimate friends to the day I left the parish.  And, as far as I know, it was equally true of everyone else in the parish.  Put perhaps as briefly as possible to a fellow-vestryman by Emory Haskell, also a rich man 2: ‘I can’t go along with Bill usually but I notice we always discuss what he has said at Sunday dinner.”

            I resigned the parish in 1949 for two reasons: one, I figured the place needed a younger man;  second, I had more than I could do with the Witness.3

But we go back to warm friends and there has not been a Sunday since that my wife and I have not wished that we were getting ready for the eleven o’clock service at historic Christ Church.

            It is nice too to get their occasional letters, the many cards at Christmas, and the large box of Coronas, eight inches long,  that still come direct from the Tennis and Racket Club with a letter enclosed from Amory Haskell, Republican leader, bringing me up to date on the state of affairs in Middletown.

            Preachers can be free if they are nice about it –if they are not both free and nice they probably ought to get out.”

  Bill Jr. There are two letters from Bp. Paul Matthews in Dad’s files.  One dated December 18, 1935, says, among other things:

            ‘While I do not wish to say that I am opposed to this plan, I do not feel enthusiastic about it.  It seems too much like the arrangement with E.M.cd, which perhaps for a working agreement served well enough, but I am inclined to think that a man giving full time to the work, or perhaps taking some mission work in connection with Middletown, would prove to be the better plan.

            ‘As a matter of fact, for several years towards the end of his stay in Middletown, E.M. was supposed to take oversight of East Highlands and Atlantic Highlands, although I am not sure that plan worked out well in his case.

            ‘At the same time, if the vestry is a unit in wanting Spofford, I shall raise no objection to it.

            ‘The vestry, of course, realizes that Spoddord (sic) is more or less inclined toward Socialism, do they not?  I feel convinced, however, that he is not a militant socialist.”

            The second letter, dated January 4, 1936, and addressed to Mr. Wm. Thompson (who was treasurer of the vestry), read:

            ‘I confess that I did not quite like the idea of making an arrangement with Mr. Spofford for only $15 a week as it seemed an inadequate amount for you to pay for stated supply, but I have a letter from Mr. Spofford this morning stating that he made the suggestion himself, and that later, when he came to Middletown to live in the rectory, and could give more time to the work of the parish, the stipend could be increased.

            ‘He felt that by making such an arrangement the parish would be able to pay up its obligation to the Diocese in full, for its assessment and also for its Missionary apportionment.

            ‘With all this understood, I am very glad to assent to the arrangement and have Mr. Spofford assume the work in Middletown as Priest-in-charge.  I hope it will not be long before he is able not only to be in charge but in residence.”

             It is significant that, once again, WBS is in a non-stipendiary position, free to be editor and activist and, at the same time, exercising his priesthood.   Actually, much of his pastoral work was done on the New Jersey Central commuter train and on the two-a-day crossings on the ferry boat to-and-fro Manhattan.  He was actually a very strong and caring parish priest and, when they moved to Tunkhannock, he filled in at the church in Milford and one of the suburbs of Wilkes-Barre.  He enjoyed the chance to preach and teach and wanted to use his love for humanity in more than a theoretical sense.

            A personal note is that Bp. Paul Matthews was a close friend of the family of my wife, Polly, and the last time we recall seeing him was at the lawn-party reception at their Middletown home, following our marriage in Christ Church on Sept. 9, 1944.  He had been retired for sometime then, and the Bishop of New Jersey was Wallace Gardner.