River of Years

Joseph Fort Newton
MY first look at the jacket, through which this River of Years flows on its abundant way revealed a picture of the church in Philadelphia of which my father began a long rectorship precisely a hundred years ago. the church in which I myself was baptized I will not say just how many years later. How could I fail to be interested in the story of a later rector of that particular church?
The first and strongest impression this autobiography makes upon me is that of the changes which have come to pass between 1846 and 1946. The contrast involved extends far beyond one Episcopal church in one American city. Few ministers of the Gospel could represent the twentieth-century aspect of this contrast more strikingly than Dr. Newton. Texas-born, and trained at the Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, he began his ministry in Baptist churches of Texas towns. He roamed far afield
through nonsectarian churches in the Middle West to the ministry of the Congregational City Temple in London, and thence, after World War I, to New York and Philadelphia, and ordination in the Episcopal Church. This itinerary suggests a variety of background and a mobility of body and mind hard to duplicate among the clergy of any faith. Dr. Newton has also been a prolific writer, with a long list of books in many fields, including Freemasonry, and a prodigious output as a newspaper columnist.
The story of such a pilgrimage is not to be told with much reticence, and reticence is not one of Dr. Newton’s qualities. The enthusiasm for his calling which made such a career possible inevitably pervades his writing. He has innumerable good words to say for his innumerable friends, of the highest and lowliest estate. Only once does “most unique" invade his vocabulary. Hitler is among the few he cannot commend.
Dr. Newton is not alone among autobiographers in letting others say handsome things about him which he cannot quite decently say himself. In one instance he quotes, without intimating that they are not his own, some lines from a noble poem by Ralph Hodgson, which he used at the close of one of his sermons. Von Hiigel and other mystics have struck a quickly responsive chord in his nature. He sees all the good he can in the “Oxford Group,”and shows a still greater sympathy with psychic communications. His gift of felicitous expression bears many happy fruits, such as the characterization of Americans in general us so “bigoted in religion, and so narrow that we could see through a key-hole with both eyes at the same time.”
The generous, inclusive spirit of it all, no less than the frontispiece portrait, gives one to understand why somebody in England called him “a kind of religious Wendell Willkie.”As between this century and the nineteenth, what matters more in a city parish now grown old than the preaching and living of essential Christianity in terms of the preacher’s own time?