The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 24, 2014

REFERENCE DESK
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Bell, Bernard Iddings
Cicero Bruce - 03/02/11
Lifespan: (1886–1958)

Bernard Iddings Bell, an Episcopal clergyman, wrote more than twenty books examining the American way of life from the point of view of Christian orthodoxy. Among his principal works are Right and Wrong after the War (1918), Beyond Agnosticism (1929), In the City of Confusion (1938), God Is Not Dead (1945), Crisis in Education (1949), and Crowd Culture (1952). In all these works, he argued that Americans were mistakenly pursuing comfort as the end of life and beginning to believe that “one may eat one’s cake and have it too, that there can be reward without quest, wages without work, a master’s prestige without a master’s skill, marriage without fidelity, national security without sacrifice.”

Bell maintained that American culture was in serious trouble. He insisted that parents and educators were largely to blame because, in failing to provide the young with a coherent, time-tested moral framework for thinking and behaving, they were failing to furnish America with the kind of leaders it needed. He thought the church, in practicing tolerance to a fault and trying to appear “up-to-date,” had become as ineffectual as families and public schools in making Americans wise and reasonable. He cautioned that churches of all denominations were paying too high a price for preferring popularity to prophecy, a price amounting to their becoming laughable as well as powerless. Bell concluded that America was doomed to wander in a state of intellectual and spiritual aimlessness until an aristocracy of character, well catechized and deliberately educated in the humane tradition, arose to guide the populace into a more meaningful existence.

When first published Bell’s books attracted considerable attention. Notable conservatives of the time read and praised them, men such as Albert J. Nock, T. S. Eliot, and Richard M. Weaver. Few theologians have reached as wide and diverse a public as Bell did during the first half of the twentieth century. His audience extended to England and Canada, where he frequently lectured and gave sermons. His writings had a lasting influence on the father of modern American conservatism, Russell Kirk, who called Bell “an Isaiah preaching to the Remnant,” a “High Churchman” who conceded nothing “to the social gospellers, liberals, latitudinarians, modernists, humanitarians, or public-relations experts.”

Bell was born in Dayton, Ohio. He received a B.A. in 1907 from the University of Chicago, where he majored in social history. He studied religion at Western Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1912 with a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology. In 1919, after serving as vicar and dean of St. Paul’s Church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Bell accepted an offer to preside as warden at St. Stephen’s College (now Bard College) in New York, a position he held until 1933. While at St. Stephen’s he taught religion at Columbia University. As canon of St. John’s Cathedral in Providence, Rhode Island, as canon of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Chicago, Illinois, and as William Vaughn Moody Lecturer at the University of Chicago, Bell dedicated his later years to the religious training of adults and his work in the classroom.

Further Reading
  • Bruce, Cicero. “Bernard Iddings Bell, Rebel Rouser.” Modern Age 41 (1999): 252–61.
  • ———. Introduction to Crowd Culture: An Examination of the American Way of Life, by Bernard Iddings Bell. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2001.
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