Friday, February 15, 2013

T.S. Eliot and Unitarianism

This is the second in a series of short essays that I plan to write and post on this blog about T.S. Eliot and religion, prompted by recent publications of the T.S. Eliot Editorial Project.  These essays will also be something of a supplement to my 2009 book The Making of T.S. Eliot, which tracks the poet's intellectual and spiritual development through 1930.  As with any serious study, this is a work in progress -- so your feedback is very welcome!

William Greenleaf Eliot (1811 - 1887)
Does anyone really choose their religion?  It seems to me that most people follow the religious traditions of their youth and culture, sooner or later.  That’s the thought that kept popping into my head this week, as I read a handful of sermons written by T.S. Eliot’s grandfather William Greenleaf Eliot.  WGE was a Unitarian missionary who spent most of his adult life in St. Louis, at a time when that city still represented the “American West.”  Though WGE died the year before his youngest grandson was born, T.S. Eliot was brought up to be very much aware of his grandfather and his beliefs.  His mother Charlotte, who wrote a biography of the elder statesman, saw to that.

As a college student, T.S. Eliot ventured east to his grandfather’s native New England.  In the following years he continued east, to the land of William Greenleaf Eliot’s ancestors.  The aspiring poet settled in England in 1914, and that’s where he spent the remainder of his life, eventually becoming a British citizen and an outspoken member of the Anglican Church.   Even before that, however, he was going to great lengths to distance himself from the religious tradition of his youth.

In a 1919 article in The Athenaeum, TSE obliquely refers to Unitarianism as “Boston doubt,” opining that while it’s “not destructive,” it is “dissolvent.”  A few years later, he is more pointed in a letter to Frederic Manning: “I was myself brought up in a strong atmosphere of the most liberal Liberal theology and I cannot but regard such tendencies as unsuitable to the needs of the time” (Valerie Eliot: Letters II 302).  In 1926, the year before he was baptized into the Anglican faith, he writes to his brother Henry that Unitarianism was simply “bad preparation for brass tacks like birth, copulation, death, hell, heaven and insanity” (Valerie Eliot: Letters III 228). Despite all of these protestations -- and despite the fact that T.S. Eliot nominally embraced a very different Christian theology -- I can’t read very much of William Greenleaf Eliot’s religious writings without seeing an overwhelming influence on T.S. Eliot’s work.  It seems clear to me that Unitarianism significantly shaped the poet’s religious temperament, even though he rejected it as a system of ideas.   

In an 1854 book Discourses on the Unity of God, and Other Subjects, William Greenleaf Eliot defines Unitarianism according to its ultra-rational rejection of the Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant doctrine of the Trinity.  WGE writes:

The union between God and Christ is a subject beyond our perfect comprehension - it is therefore a mystery; but as Christ declared that he could ‘do nothing of himself,’ - that he ‘spake not of himself,’ but only ‘as the Father gave him commandment,’ - we are prepared to see that those who assert that he was equal with the Father, and independent of his authority, are in error.  The subject is mysterious, but the contradiction is plain.  So when Christ asserts that he did not know of a certain future event (see Mark xiii. 32), the assertion that he was nevertheless Omniscient is evidently a denial of what he said.  The limits of his knowledge we cannot define, but he plainly asserts that some limits do exist, which is a distinct denial of Omniscience (WG Eliot: Discourses 6).

Just a few paragraphs later, he concludes:

We do indeed think that the Unitarian system of Christianity is more rational than what is commonly called Orthodoxy at the present day, and this is one argument for its truth; for as Reason and Revelation are both of them God’s work, there cannot be any real opposition between them.  If we are sure of any doctrine that is irrational or self-contradictory, we may be equally sure that it is not a revealed truth… The doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere plainly taught in Scripture, nor can it be stated in Scripture words; it is a doctrine of inference, built up by arguments, and depending upon distinctions so nice and difficult that it requires a good deal of metaphysical acuteness to perceive them (WG Eliot: Discourses 7).

Having established the distinctive belief of his sect, William Greenleaf Eliot spent the rest of his life acting according to the essentially unsectarian teachings of Jesus Christ.  He devoted himself and all of his resources to general philanthropy (caring for the sick and the poor throughout his city, even during the devastating cholera epidemic of 1849), liberal culture (campaigning for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery), and public education (raising money for the founding of Washington University).  He must be regarded as a man of admirable works, even by those who do not subscribe to his system of beliefs.

In her 1904 biography of WGE, Charlotte C. Eliot writes that her father-in-law believed that “the path of duty” was the path that “soonest leads to the love and perception of truth (Charlotte Eliot 12).  She makes it clear that he was determined to live a moral life and to make himself useful to all those in need, rather than focusing on sectarian differences.  WGE embraced Unitarianism because he regarded it as a middle way -- best suited to the needs of the time and place in which he was living -- between destructive dogmatism and aimless skepticism.  He revered Jesus as a necessary spiritual model, “the only perfect character ever delineated” (WGE: Lectures 83), but noted that Jesus “did not claim for Christianity a monopoly of spiritual truth” (Charlotte Eliot 336).   Accordingly, WGE advised his parishoners to trust the Bible as well as their own Reason, and to go wherever they "hear the Gospel most faithfully preached, and where you feel the influence upon your character to be the best” (WGE: Lectures 189). 

In a sense, T.S. Eliot followed this advice.  After years of critical thinking and searching, he embraced the Anglo-Catholic tradition, recognizing that he needed the conservatism and discipline of the Catholic Church in order to solidify his own beliefs.  For him, orthodoxy served as a necessary counter-agent to the residual influence of Unitarianism that he regarded as “dissolvent.”  His personal needs at that time in his life, when the immortal wages of sin were foremost on his mind and his wife Vivien was slowly succumbing to insanity, could not be met by a Liberal theology.   And because such a wide audience had responded so enthusiastically to the world-weary anxieties of his poem The Waste Land, we may forgive him for thinking that his personal needs were also “the needs of the time” -- by which he undoubtedly meant Europe in the aftermath of World War I.    In 1927, when T.S. Eliot surrendered to his need for an external spiritual authority, he embraced Jesus Christ as that authority... just like his grandfather before him.

That might be the end of the matter from the perspective of William Greenleaf Eliot, but it wasn’t the end of the matter for T.S. Eliot.  In his book T.S. Eliot: The Making of an American Poet, 1888-1922, James E. Miller quotes a reminiscence of the poet’s friend William Turner Leavy as follows:

Tom told me that the [Anglo-Catholic] Church had defined good and evil for him, whereas, as a child, “All that concerned my family was ‘right and wrong,’ what was ‘done and not done.’”  […]  Tom concluded his thought: “It is necessary to realize that every act of ours results in positive good or positive evil.  There’s no escape from that!” (Miller 120-121)

Ironically, William Greenleaf Eliot likely would have agreed with him.  In his Lectures to Young Men, WGE writes:

There is a great difference between morality and religion.  We may say, indeed, that morality cannot be perfect, without religious principle for its foundation; and as a matter of fact, this is true.  Worldly principles are not enough to make a man truly good.  (WGE: Lectures 173)

WGE goes on to suggest that although Unitarians “do not undervalue” morality, the soul without religion “is very far from its own highest advancement” (WGE: Lectures 175).   Admittedly, WGE’s assertion that sin destroys happiness, produces misery and debases the soul is not the same as saying that sin produces “positive evil” in the world.... but, once again, the difference probably would have seemed much less significant to William Greenleaf Eliot than it did to T.S. Eliot.

In his 1973 biography Great Tom: Notes towards the Definition of T.S. Eliot, T.S. Matthews asserts that “conversion is too loud a word for Eliot’s reception into the [Anglican] church,” because “he was merely re-entering the house where he had been born and brought up… [H]e had only been for a stroll around the block” (Matthews 89).  T.S. Eliot himself would have strongly disagreed with this conclusion.  According to Jewel Spears Brooker (a much more formidable Eliot scholar), when William Force Stead once remarked that Eliot had “returned” to the church, Eliot responded, “Return?  I was never there!” (Brooker 128).  For much of his life, he continued to regard Unitarianism as an ersatz religion.  Brooker writes that, for him, it was only the first of many “substitutes for religion” that he explored on his way to the Anglo-Catholic faith (and beyond...?).  She rightly hastens to add that all of those "substitutes" made a significant mark on his mind, and nearly all of them became incorporated into the rich, enigmatic faith that the poet expresses in Four Quartets:
 He did not try one scheme at a time, neatly and in sequence.  Both in substance and in sequence, his schemes overlapped.  Moreover, in taking seriously one substitute and then rejecting it, he did not obliterate it from his mind [...] This change does not superannuate either humanism or aestheticism or Buddhism, but includes them, at least residually, in an ever increasing complexity of intelligence and feeling.  The pattern of his inclusive and cultivated imagination is rich and strange, and finally, elusive.  His Christianity, certainly, cannot be equated with any handbook definition, but it is Christianity just the same (Brooker 139).
Though I'm jumping the gun a bit here, I think the following passage comes pretty close to summing up the essence of Four Quartets (if such a "summing up" can be achieved at all):

The longer I live, every additional day, I see more of the importance of a real faith in the existence of truth.  I have come to the decided opinion that there is one Philosophy, one Religion.  What they are, God only knows.  Every consideration leads me to think that there is one stream of truth, which is from and to eternity, deep, pure, and spiritual - to which every soul tends, and will reach sooner or later.

That’s William Greenleaf Eliot, summing up his own religious "conversion."


Brooker, Jewel Spears.  Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism.  Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1994. 

Eliot, Charlotte C.  William Greenleaf Eliot: Minister, Educator, Philanthropist.  Boston: Houghton, 1904.

Eliot, T.S.  “A Sceptical Patrician.”  The Athenaeum.  May 23, 1919.

Eliot, Valerie, ed.  The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 2: 1923 - 1925.  London: Faber, 2009.

Eliot, Valerie, & John Haffenden, ed. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 3: 1926 - 1927.  London: Faber, 2012.

Eliot, William Greenleaf. Discourses on the Unity of God, and Other Subjects.  Boston: Crosby, 1854.

--.  Lectures to Young Men.  11th edition.  Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1882.

Matthews, T.S.  Great Tom: Notes towards the Definition of T.S. Eliot.  New York: Harper, 1973. 

Miller, James E.  T.S. Eliot: The Making of an American Poet, 1888-1922.  University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2005.

1 comment:

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