Classic Essays

One Man’s Striving: Part 1

Simpson198303_young_minister-1

EDITOR’S NOTE: This seven-part series from the unpublished autobiography of William Simpson, was originally published in the March, June, and August 1983 and March, August, and December 1984 issues of National Vanguard magazine. This is a deeply moving, hard-hitting, no-holds-barred personal growth odyssey that makes Somerset Maugham’s “soul voyage” classics The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage pale in comparison. William Simpson evolved from a liberal Christian minister and co-founder of the leftist ACLU to eventually find enlightenment in a much more realistic and scientific world view. — William Fox

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(ILLUSTRATION: WILLIAM SIMPSON in 1913: He has just arrived in Wild Rose, North Dakota, to spend the summer as a student preacher after his first year at Union Theological Seminary.)

One Man’s Striving

by William Gayley Simpson
(edited with the assistance of Dr. William L. Pierce)

Part 1 of 7

The author of Which Way Western Man? epitomizes his credo and recalls his feelings as a young Christian minister in these two brief excerpts from his unpublished autobiography.

THE DEEPEST DESIRE in everything that has breath is to live — to fulfill itself, to become what it was meant to become. Every man who, with sincerity and earnestness, begins to seek to know his destiny and the direction his next steps should take receives clear leadings, which become clearer the more he follows them. The needed intimations and intuitions are contained in his own deepest desire.

He may call this “the will of God” and believe it comes from outside and beyond him, as I did in the beginning; or he may remember hearing its voice within himself and give it the authority of the abysmal will of his own being, as I do now. But always, at bottom, it is what he himself wants most; that in him for which he is willing to let everything else in life go; that in him apart from whose satisfaction life holds no meaning.

What he wants, what he is able to want, will depend entirely on the stage he has reached in the development of his perception: how he sees, what he values. According to the meaning he finds, on the one hand, in physical pleasure, material possession, power over people; or, on the other hand, in the contemplation and creation of beauty, the discovery of truth, or the conquest of himself and the devotion of his powers to the realization of a nobler human life on this earth, so must he strive. His desire will be shaped, above all, by how he sees himself: as a separate entity, to be satisfied, therefore, apart from and even at the expense of other people; or, as one with other men, their deepest life so constituting an extension of his own that he may come to his supreme fulfillment in laying down his life for them.

Yet what he thinks he wants may be very different from what he really wants. At one time or another the former may even seem quite opposed to that wanting hid in the profoundest depths of his being, on the realization of which hangs the entire meaning of all his days on the earth. Finding out what one really wants is one of the most difficult, most costly, and, therefore, one of the last things most of us ever attain. Usually it takes long years, much suffering, and repeated experience of disillusionment.

Nevertheless, the desires born of the vision, the adoration, and the conviction of each dedicated moment as we come to it contain clues to our destiny, the intended meaning of our life both to ourselves and to society, and the next steps toward accomplishing it. Our whole hope of taking shape and becoming an ordered and organic whole depends upon our yielding ourselves to these intimations, while we strive to put off all concern for manifest results in the external world and all fear of consequences.

The alternative to a way of such inner honesty is a relapse into the confused, fluid, uncertain, and chaotic state in which we began, amounting to spiritual betrayal, paralysis, and disintegration. If we are to live we must take what we were born with, begin where we are, and struggle to follow the best light we have. Our heredity we cannot escape. Our environment we cannot greatly change. Either we shape it (or, at least, take a shape in the face of it), or it shapes us.

For well over 60 years I have believed that for a man to take his own shape and direction and to hold it even though it be in the face of a world that does not understand it –indeed, despises and hates it — is the greatest joy of which his life is capable; it is, at the same time, to meet in full his duty to society and to render to it his farthest-reaching contribution. Wittingly or unwittingly, in so many words or in other words, with one philosophy or another, for well over half a century I have said, “Be what you are. Make your outside match your inside. Be true to your deepest self.” I have believed it is right to do this even though it removes a man so far from the life and thought of his day that he seems doomed to die without having made any mark upon it, as long seemed true of Thoreau.

I have believed it right to do this even though, for all the love there is in him, he can find no way to go without bringing grief to those who love him. Not only have I believed such a course right, and justifiable at last by the obvious contribution such integrity has made to the unfolding life of men, but I have believed any other course to be wrong, a flight from life, a betrayal of the ultimate meaning of existence not only in oneself but in all other men.

This has been not only my philosophy and my religion: it has also been my practice. Probably even my severest critics would concede this. Before I had anything to say to other people, I struggled to put my deepest conviction and surest insight into my own life.

This has taken me ways I little expected to go when I first began to listen and to obey. I started very much like any ordinary young man: conventional of the conventional and orthodox of the orthodox. But more and more I found my face set in a direction counter to all my age believed in. While the scientist has seen life as struggle for existence, I have seen no meaning in existence unless it had elevation; and for the sake of elevation and quality of life I have striven to be ready even to sacrifice my existence.

While the psychologist has talked much of happiness and has seen life as a matter of “adjustment” to one’s environment, commonly meaning concession to it, I have thrown my “happiness” away again and again for the sake of an intangible I couldn’t see or lay my hands on or prove: I have preferred to exhaust myself or to be broken in an attempt to transcend my environment, rather than surrender to it.

Editor’s Note: As William Simpson states above, he did not begin his life with the full understanding of its meaning he now has. Instead he started in a very orthodox way, intending from the age of 20 to devote his life to the Christian ministry.

With that aim in mind he entered Union Theological Seminary, in New York City, as a scholarship student in the fall of 1912. After graduating magna cum laude three years later, he was offered a position as assistant minister at a prestigious church with a wealthy congregation in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He chose instead to begin preaching at a very poor, run-down Presbyterian church in Carteret, New Jersey, a drab mill town.

Very early in his ministerial career he realized that there were important differences between his own faith and the official doctrine of his church. Nevertheless, he managed to make the necessary compromises, and on February 20, 1917, he was finally ordained a Presbyterian minister, although not without some stormy debates with his superiors. He then resumed his preaching at the church in Carteret.

The compromises he had made worried him more and more as time passed, however. He was beginning to make his way toward the light, but it was a journey which would occupy him for several more years yet. He tells of the ways in which he began to change, some 66 years ago:

I have often wished that I had not made quite the effort I did to get into the Church. After all, there are more people outside than in, and there are other lines of work into which a man can put at least as much dedication as into the ministry. I like the wry comment of Martin Luther: “Ich kann nicht so leise treten.” It was not in his nature to “pussy foot.”

And it is not in mine, really. While it is true that I had steadily refused to affirm my belief in Jesus’ virgin birth, and even more in his physical resurrection, I should now think of those days with less distaste if I had made no effort at all to put thoughts and convictions of mine, which I knew very well were contrary to what my examiners required of me, into terms and forms that would allay their suspicion.

However, I found myself a minister at last. And Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, head of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, one of the most important in New York, and soon to become president of Union Theological Seminary, began to exert himself to get me out of Carteret into some large church, more like the college church at Bryn Mawr which I had previously turned down. He even offered me a place on his own staff. At this time I had probably reached the high-water mark of my career in the Church.

Meanwhile the tide had begun to turn in another direction. Beneath the surface all was not well in my life as a minister. Two articles I read in the Atlantic Monthly about this time both expressed my unrest and added to it. They were by Edward Lewis, who had recently left the ministry of the Congregational Church in England to take to wayside preaching. [1] But it was chiefly my own experience in the ministry that had begun to turn me against it.

Note 1 – “The Failure of the Church,” Atlantic Monthly, December 1914; and “The Professional Ministry,”Atlantic Monthly, November 1915.

Many things I had to do went against my grain. I did not like being compelled to preach twice every Sunday. Even once every Sunday might have been too much. I resented having to subject my spirit to a clock and to hold forth just because it was a certain hour. I was not a spigot thus to be turned on and off in accord with some mechanical arrangement. I began to feel the “bondage of preaching”; and there were times when I returned home on Sunday evening with something akin to nausea, because I had forced myself and spoken with a show of feeling I did not really have; or perhaps because I had allowed myself to speak at all when in fact I had nothing to say, and my real need was rather to commune with my own soul.

There is nothing upon which a man’s spiritual growth and vitality depend more than upon the uttermost sincerity. For him to speak when he does not feel that his God has given him something to say, or to speak with a show of conviction greater than he actually feels, is to do violence to himself. In his soul he lies. The lie may be great or it may be small, but spiritual growth and vigor and significance do not develop in the man who lies in this way at all. For this is lying in relation to his God, in relation to his own innermost being. And that is “the sin against the Holy Ghost,” for which there is no forgiveness. The man who violates his own being begins to die. No man ever escapes it.

I am convinced that trifling at this point is the chief reason why ministers as a whole are so dead. I shall never forget the impression that stabbed into me one day, years later, when I walked onto the platform to address a meeting of all the Methodist ministers of Greater New York. As I turned and looked at my audience I seemed to see a crowd of men without faces, of faces covered with masks. Those masks were the outgrowth of their year-round habit of not saying what they really meant, of constantly allowing themselves to say what they did not mean.

Praying in public offended me in the same sort of way. There were times when I felt like praying, and there were times when I did not feel like praying. And to stand up and go through the motions of praying, just because that was the next thing on the program, seemed to me, if anything, even worse than forcing myself to speak in a way that did not come out of my heart. Moreover, in those days, at least, I yielded a supreme authority to Jesus’ mere word, and by all that I could make of what Jesus said about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount the kind of praying I was expected to do in my church services stood condemned.

He said, in effect, “Don’t be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street comers, that they may be seen of men; but when you pray, go into your own room, and having shut the door pray to your heavenly Father secretly. And your Father who seeth in secret shall recompense you.” We professed to believe that “your heavenly Father knoweth what things you have need of before you ask him.” But if we really believed that, I could not see why we said prayers in public except “to be heard of men.” At any rate, more than once I caught myself in the subtle insincerity of preaching at my congregation under the form of a prayer to God!

Also, I was beginning to feel strongly about the moral enormity, as it seemed to me, of our economic system. I saw that the Church in relation to this system was like a “kept woman.” In the world of time and space the Church was an institution, which, like any institution, had to pay bills. To get money it catered to those who had money, to those who were getting their money out of “things as they are” and who wanted to keep things that way.

To get money for new and larger buildings, for stained-glass windows, surplices, choirs, and larger salaries for ministers, the Church had sold its soul. It was emphasizing things Jesus never talked about. It was almost entirely silent about the things he lived and died for. The cash connection between the Church’s need of money and the kind of men she got her money from had helped to make her one of the worst enemies of the good of mankind. And the professional minister was its paid retainer. Increasingly I disliked getting my livelihood from an institution of this sort.

There were still other difficulties. But it will be enough to point out, finally, that I simply did not hold the orthodox theological convictions. It is hard to be strictly honest with yourself when you stand to lose by it so much as a minister usually does. Not till I was altogether out did I realize how much of a cast had been put in my eye by my half-subconscious realization that every unorthodox conclusion I reached would damage my prospects for advancement in my profession.

Nevertheless, I came to the place where I not only rejected the dogma of the virgin birth but was very skeptical about the so-called miracles, and I positively did not believe that the body of Jesus the Roman soldiers nailed to the cross ever walked the earth again. Above all, I did not believe that Jesus’ death made any difference whatever in the attitude of God toward man. To be sure, in seminary we had been given an interpretation of the significance of Jesus’ death that enabled us to go on talking about “the atonement.” But it was simply a bald fact that the doctrine thus revised and revamped bore no resemblance to, and had no connection with, the doctrine known down through the centuries as The Atonement.

According to the view of things I had reached, Jesus did not pay any price to God. No price was needed. My God was no Shylock. He did not demand the money on the counter before he delivered the goods of forgiveness. My God was like the sun. He shone upon the good and upon the evil equally. We could turn our backs upon him and walk in the dark if we wanted to, but he was ever ready to flood us again with his light the moment we turned back to him. My God bore no resentment. He forgave not only “seventy times seven,” but always – as Jesus evidently believed even man could do, and as I certainly knew I must try to do.

Moreover, no one can answer for another or pay the price for another. I am, of course, not denying that what happens to, anyone of us affects at least many others of us. I am not forgetting the extent to which we all are one. But my living, my growing, my dying, are my own. Also I see, or I do not see; and no other man’s seeing can possibly make up to me for my own blindness.

The kind of teaching we have had in the orthodox doctrine of the Atonement, to which men’s minds I and spirits have been exposed through long centuries, has simply cut the taproot of all moral and spiritual endeavor. Jesus is our substitute. He makes up for our shortcomings. He pays the price of admission. He “fixes it up” with God. In consequence men have ‘ tended to leave it all to him. The most striking thing about the life of the Christian Church today is the almost complete absence of any wholehearted attempt to put the teaching of Jesus into practice. For the most part, Christians are content merely to cry, “Lord, Lord.”

I saw the effect of this in my own preaching. Much of the idealism and moral ardor that came out even more fully in my life some years later was quite apparent even then in my sermons. Sunday after Sunday I would pour out my faith, my hope, and my conviction; and not uncommonly the people would come up and tell me what a fine sermon it was. But they did nothing about it. And naturally enough, as I see it now. They had been brought up on a teaching which represented that right life was less important than right belief, which almost asserted that the effort to live a right life was futile.

Moreover, while I know now that the teaching of Jesus can be practiced, here and now, it can’t be practiced by everybody. It never was intended for everybody. It can be practiced only by those who have the requisite spiritual perception and stamina, qualities that most people do not have. And then, too, for all my earnestness, as I can see now, I was not myself practicing what I preached. I may have been pointing the way, but I was not leading it. And people are not likely to take very seriously a way which even the man who preaches it does not follow.

Meanwhile, events in the world were hastening me toward the day when I should be forced to take positions that would drive me to do more than talk, that would give me experience out of which I could talk with more conviction and force than had ever been possible before.

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[Editor’s 2009 note: This text applies to 1983] William Simpson, a member of the National Alliance, is now in his 91st year. He lives in retirement with his wife Harriett on their farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains.

Source: National Vanguard, March 1983, pages 20-23

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