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Public school installs stained glass window celebrating ‘Christian socialist’

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When a public school receives a stained glass window from a church, it typically stirs controversy about the separation of church and state. Yet an elementary school has recently installed a window celebrating a self-described “Christian socialist.”

Willard Elementary School in Winchester, Indiana, has festooned its cafeteria with a window donated by the town’s First United Methodist Church, depicting the woman whose name the school bears.

Frances E. Willard (1839-1898) so empowered women through education that the Evanston College for Ladies (which subsequently merged with Northwestern University) named her president. Willard spent 1877 working for famed evangelist Dwight L. Moody. She was also one of the first women elected to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1888, where her fellow delegates refused to seat her and four other women.

But she is best remembered for another cause: Prohibition.

Willard had been a founding member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) at its 1874 convention in Cleveland.

Despite its dour and puritanical reputation, the WCTU initially focused on prayer and nonviolent protest, which proved successful. The Christian organization convinced untold numbers of men (and women) about the dangers of alcoholism and that they should give up drinking.

Then politics got involved.

Willard gradually wrestled control of the WCTU away from its first leader, Annie Wittenmyer. The latter wanted the WCTU to remain a single-issue organization. Willard wanted to use the WCTU to promote a broader political agenda including, but (as we shall see) not restricted to, women’s suffrage. Wittenmyer felt, while the cause may be worthwhile, it was outside the WCTU’s mandate.

Willard displaced her foe in 1879 and led the group until her death in 1898. She also founded the World Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1883 and became its president in 1891.

As president Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard, known as “Frank,” changed the WCTU’s tactics from prayer to partisanship. Instead of voluntarily convincing people to give up drinking or pressuring individual saloons and breweries, she launched a campaign for local politicians to establish Prohibition. She attempted to forge political alliances with the Prohibition Party and the People’s Party (Populists), without success.

She also formally embraced socialism after reading Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward and advanced a vision of what she called a “cooperative commonwealth.” And she increasingly used the WCTU to promote her own vision of society under the slogan, “Do Everything.”

“She was a Fabian socialist, urging the nationalization of utilities, the 8-hour day, child labor laws,” one account of her life states. “Willard felt that wealthy capitalists were exploiting labor. In 1886, the year of the violent [H]aymarket riots for which labor was blamed, the WCTU sent a representative to the meeting of the Knights of Labor.”

In 1892, after her mother’s death, Willard vacationed in England and joined the Fabian Society, an elite intellectual society dedicated to the notion of bringing about socialism by gradual steps. She would later confess, “Under the mould of conservative action I have been most radical in thought.”

Among her many organizational affiliations, Frances E. Willard joined the Christian Socialist Fellowship. She said in her last address to the organization:

What the Socialist desires is that the co-operation of humanity should control all production. Beloved comrades, this is the higher way; it eliminates the motives for a selfish life; it enacts into our every-day living the ethics of Christ’s Gospel. Nothing else can bring the glad day of universal brotherhood. It is Christianity applied.

Not one man in a hundred believes that the teachings of Jesus can be in every-day practice. Socialists do! (Emphases in original.)

Traditional Christianity has always believed that it is possible to apply Christ’s teachings, however imperfectly, in thought, word, and deed – whether they call this process sanctification, theosis, or Christian perfection. Furthermore, government need not compel willing service.

Christians realize that, instead of eliminating selfishness, socialism attracts those who yearn to control the apparatus of the state. Pope Leo XIII wrote during Willard’s lifetime that socialists “assail the right of [private] property,” because they are motivated “by the greed of present goods, which is ‘the root of all evils which some coveting have erred from the faith.’” Pope Pius XI would insist, far from being the application of the Christian faith, “Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms.”

Willard died in 1898, and the WCTU returned to a more focused campaign for Prohibition, which Willard’s personal agenda had slowed. Ultimately, the nation adopted the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution 100 years ago this year – on January 16, 1919.

Willard would remain a revered figure by the various groups whose causes she championed. A statue of Willard, donated by the state of Illinois, graces the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol – the first commemorating a woman. A plaque in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park honors Willard as “the first world organizer of women.” Paintings, streets, and monuments dedicated to her memory dot 40 of the 50 states. And now, one has moved from a church to the inside of a public elementary school in rural Indiana.

Willard’s most public cause, Prohibition, has been recognized as a well-intentioned policy that had profoundly harmful unintended consequences, including bootlegging, violence, and the rise of organized crime.

Socialism, “Christian” or otherwise, should be remembered the same way.

Those are the lessons the children of Willard Elementary School should learn as they pass by her stained glass visage.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.

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