“I Came Out of a Methodist Parsonage:”
John Andrew Rice and the Dispositions of an Educator
by Thomas Edward Frank, Wake Forest University
I begin with two disclosures. The first is to acknowledge that John Andrew Rice would most likely have hated the title of this article. After all, he professed to hate the Methodist Church in which his father was a pastor, and he often made derogatory comments about everything from Methodist bishops to parsonage furniture to popular religious demagoguery. He poignantly recalled his mother’s cry, “I’d rather die than move again,” uttered upon hearing of yet another appointment in yet another town for her itinerating preacher-husband—and Rice professed to taking her feelings as his own (Eighteenth Century 44-46; 337). Yet I want to argue here that his attitude about his upbringing and particularly about his father was deeply ambivalent and that, despite his disclaimers, Rice was indelibly shaped by his parsonage experiences even to the point that they came to play a distinctive role in his dispositions as an educator.
My second disclosure is that I am also the son of a Methodist preacher, indeed of a Methodist preacher who became a bishop. Like Rice I grew up in a parsonage and, though we did not move residences very often in my childhood, I came to know intimately the peripatetic life of pastors and bishops. At many points in Rice’s autobiography, I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century, I found myself laughing out loud as I read along, with a flood of cognate memories let loose by Rice’s evocative prose. Like Rice, I have spent most of my career in higher education; but unlike Rice, I am an ordained Methodist minister myself and served a couple of churches after graduate school. Far from erasing my own ambivalence, however, in some ways my life experience has only driven the ambivalence deeper, such that it is tempting to dive right into psychoanalysis of Rice’s writings and put both of us on the couch.
But that is not my intent. My experience will inevitably color something of what I say here, but in the main I trust that its role might be to enable me to see some things in Rice’s writings that might otherwise be overlooked. In particular, I note how in Rice’s formative experiences lie the roots of three dispositions. First, he observed each individual’s distinctiveness, appearance, behavior, and character in great detail. Second, he exhibited a paradoxical double-mindedness about human possibility, oscillating between soaring ideals and cynical realism. And thirdly, he was convinced of the power of experience to mediate between ideas and unreflective action in creating whole persons. I conclude that while, as all of the scholarship about Rice agrees, he was dismissive of any religious dogmatism or institutional control in higher education, yet—as virtually no scholarship to date has explored—the dispositions formed in his own religious heritage had a profound influence in his approach and practice as an educator.
Indeed, John Andrew Rice seems to puzzle most BMC historians. Martin Duberman’s history of the college says virtually nothing about Rice’s background before Rollins College. Even Katherine Chaddock Reynolds, on whose well-researched work I have relied for much useful information about Rice’s life and work, appears to take his statements about his father and his upbringing at face value as rejection and even hatred of his past. For that matter, most historians and commentators seem not to know quite what to make of Rice in general. Many carelessly put an “s” on the end of his middle name. Most settle for reporting that he was irascible and irritating, while also being in many ways an astonishingly effective teacher—in Duberman’s words, a man of “contradictory nature” (1-40). This article attempts a start at explaining why.
I teach a course at Wake Forest on the history of liberal arts education and have a segment of the course on experimental colleges of the 1930s including Black Mountain College. But only recently have I started delving into the literature and primary sources about the college and its impact. When I grabbed I Came Out of the Eighteenth Century off the library shelf a year ago I thought it was about time to see what John Andrew Rice himself had to say about this collegiate experiment. After all, the book was published in 1942 only a few years after Rice’s departure from the college when recollections would have been fresh in his mind. I was startled to discover, as have many before me, that the college occupies the merest 27 pages out of a 341-page autobiography. Further research told me that Rice collected notes and made some starts toward writing about the college at the invitation of a publisher in the 1960s but never completed a manuscript, these notes then being published by his grandson William C. Rice in Southern Review in 1989 twenty years after Rice’s death.
The other startling discovery for me was not only that Rice was the eldest son of a Methodist pastor, but also that his wrestling with this experience was a recurrent theme of his autobiography. In fact, references to it are sprinkled through other writings as well. His autobiography flows back and forth between vividly described memories of life in his home state of South Carolina, with sharp aphorisms about race and politics in the South, the church, his family, and his father. I remember my first time through the book thinking at about page 97, “So you’re going to tell even more memories of your father?” Hence the temptation to psychoanalyze a man who quite evidently was trying to make peace with his father a little more than a decade after his father’s death.
Rice’s father was quite a figure to try to make peace with. John Andrew Rice, Sr., was among the most prominent pastors in the Southern branch of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was ambitious and energetic, a man of “action and ingenuity,” as Rice described him, and was quickly recognized for his intelligence and talent. After a couple of appointments to smaller towns in the 1880s, he began his ascent through the presidency of Methodist-related Columbia College in South Carolina from 1894-1900. Following two years of doctoral studies in Chicago that he never completed, going ABD, he moved on through the pastorates of five of Southern Methodism’s largest churches. He was among the elite of preachers appointed without regard to regional conference lines (usually parallel to state lines), hopscotching over other pastors in other states to land in notable congregations like Court Street (now First) Church in Montgomery, Rayne Memorial Church on St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District of New Orleans, First Church in downtown Fort Worth, St. John’s Church in the Central West End of St. Louis, and Boston Avenue Church in downtown Tulsa (Eighteenth Century 97-99).
John Andrew Rice followed his father to some of these places, living briefly in Montgomery, later entering Tulane University while his father was in New Orleans; he also talked of moving to Texas for work when his father was there. In 1914, he and Nell Aydelotte traveled to St. Louis over the holidays to be married in St. John’s Church. Rice’s experience in this wealthy congregation worshipping in a monumental building designed by Theodore Link, architect of the city’s grand Union Station, is surely one source of his acerbic comment about the “uncertain civilization of the Middle West” where “they were trying to learn how to form an aristocracy (I got quite a surprise in St. Louis when I found that one might be in the social register and the Methodist Church at the same time)”—for St. John’s had posted on the back wall of its sanctuary a seating chart noting the reserved pews of the church’s well-heeled patrons (Rice, Eighteenth Century 174; Reynolds 39-40, 43).
Not long after the wedding, Rice, like his father, began doctoral studies at the University of Chicago for which he never completed a dissertation. And one cannot help noticing how the peripatetic life of his father, of whom Rice wrote that “he was never at home in any world,” might be a source of Rice’s own itinerant life as an educator, moving from one teaching post to another and one home to another over the years—including a stint of only 6 years at Black Mountain College. To that influence one might add that Rice, Sr., was on the founding committee of Southern Methodist University and taught at its new school of theology for a year, before his pedagogical and published attempts to reconcile evolutionary theory with the Bible—as he had worked to do under the Protestant progressive educator and president William Rainey Harper at Chicago—stirred up so much controversy he had to resign. To restlessness one must add contentiousness, then, and perhaps that persistent sense of not truly belonging to any one place but rather finding a home in the books that both father and son piled high around their rooms and took with them whenever they moved. Even late in life, Rice repeatedly wrote to Charles Olson when the college was closing down in 1956, asking him to send him the books and bookcases he had left for the college’s use in 1939. (Rice, Eighteenth Century, 174; Reynolds 14-15, 193). In a quirky coincidence, the BMC library including Rice’s books was donated to a new Methodist liberal arts college, North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, chartered in 1956 and opened in 1960.
But his father was hardly the only figure in Rice’s formation. Much of his family comprised a household immersed in religious life. Rice’s mother Anna Smith was herself the daughter of a Methodist preacher. One of Anna’s brothers, known to Rice as Uncle Coke, became a Methodist bishop, and another brother, Charlie, was also a preacher. After Anna’s death in 1899, Rice’s father married Launa Darnell, the daughter of T. L. Darnell, a Methodist preacher from Tennessee, in 1902. Rice grew close to his stepmother, who was trained as an educator in the church. Launa knew the Webb brothers, who had founded a school in Tennessee that would be good for John Andrew. So off he went to finish high school at the Webb School, falling under the sway of founder “Sawney” Webb, who besides being a larger-than-life character was also a devout Methodist, sending many of his school’s graduates to the new Methodist university in Nashville, Vanderbilt (Rice, Eighteenth Century, 200, 217; Reynolds 23).
Little wonder that memories and commentary on parsonage and church life are a constant theme of Rice’s autobiography. And while he does not make explicit connections between that life and his subsequent work, some of Rice’s dispositions as an educator were surely formed by what he observed and experienced. A good beginning point is observation: Rice was a keen observer of people. The family dinner table, like most conversation, was first about people—their stories, failings, and intrigues—beginning with relatives like the bishop, and going on to neighbors, acquaintances, and public figures. As he wrote in his memoirs published in 1989, “in the South of my childhood and youth[,] life was intensely personal. Ideas induced a yawn . . . but let a name be mentioned and my tribe was off. I listened, to words, tone, gesture” (“Memoirs” 579). Rice learned to give acute attention to physical features and emotional foibles, to words and gestures that most clearly showed another person’s character, and to the power of descriptions to evoke what another person is like. His Uncle Charlie he described as longing for “plow or axe or hoe to connect him with the earth,” while a desire to emulate other men in the family had stirred him to enter the ministry where his hands were “clumsy for Bible and benediction” (Eighteenth Century 17). His uncle the bishop he described as “tall and bearded like Christ and in his nature like Christ in Christ’s milder moments. Every gesture of his hands, every word he spoke, was part of a greater harmony” (Rice Eighteenth Century 22).
But the bishop’s guileless and peaceable character was never convincing to his siblings, who relentlessly harpooned him the moment his carriage disappeared out the driveway. The same held for most any ecclesiastical visitor to the parsonage, or anyone in authority. Thus, Rice came to know a double-mindedness of outlook toward people, with care and empathy and discernment and love displayed on one face, and examination and critique and cynicism in another face. Rice wrote in Eighteenth Century of his father’s contentions with church officials,
Always eager and usually willing to see the truth, he now became an unhappy martyr to his own clarity. . . To have uttered his thoughts publicly would have ended his career in the church, so he sat at table and dissected ecclesiastical scoundrels so dextrously [sic] that we ourselves became expert. I listened with delight, not knowing that some day I should be plagued with my then acquired skill in detecting another’s weaknesses, nor that, when it comes to people, clarity unwed to charity can be an evil thing. (169)
This double-mindedness is especially acute for pastors, whose work is both relentlessly public and profoundly personal. Rice wrote of his father’s work, “the one thing we looked for and dreaded was the person who stood halfway down the aisle and a few feet inside the bank of pews” while the crowd was filing out after a service. “When we saw this we knew we were in for it” and would have to wait even longer for Sunday dinner, for his father “was infinitely patient” with people and their problems and gave them his full attention. That was face-to-face. But the pastoral role had an endemic critical distance as well that led Rice to say of his father, “he kept something of himself in reserve, outside and independent, free from the bonds of love.” The constant public restraint of a pastor to whom others are looking for moral leadership made harmonizing public and private personae extremely difficult (Eighteenth Century 55-56).
Much of this double-minded disposition is recognizable in what we know of Rice’s work as an educator. He was personally engaged with many of his students and did much of his teaching outside the classroom. He would even knock on a student’s door and invite him or her to come talk; he would sit on the porch of Robert E. Lee Hall and draw out students’ thoughts and stories with his characteristic Socratic method. But as he himself advocated, whole humanness requires both Socrates and Christ, “both thinker and lover” (Eighteenth Century 333). Without love and empathy, acute attentiveness to others can be withering, and many students and colleagues found Rice’s comments to them abrasive and demeaning. His struggle for critical thinking that could also be loving, and for love that could also be critical, colored even his memory of BMC:
There was not enough love in Black Mountain, and when there is not enough love there will be not enough affection. Here we were on the mountain about to make a new society, withdrawn partly through hate but mostly through the desire for affection, and we lacked the one thing that can create affection, love. . . .There were spurious substitutions, sentimentality and its inversion, cynicism, which throve in the cold air. (Eighteenth Century 335)
But Rice could not quite bring himself to the needed balance or induce it in others. He lacked his father’s public poise and could not bridle his lashing tongue. As he wrote of himself,
At the beginning of the second year [at BMC] I was made rector . . . I had learned some things that fitted me for the position, which I was to hold for four years, but I had learned and perfected one thing that unfitted me: I had learned the technique of opposition; that is, of irresponsibility, for criticism without chance or obligation to act is irresponsible. Whether in graduate school or in classroom, I had opposed not only the administration—every professor does that—but also my colleagues. But the spirit of opposition was older than that, beginning in a Methodist parsonage and cultivated in Methodist pews, and then in school and college. (Eighteenth Century 323)
If love and critical distance were a constant tension, so too was the larger disconnect between soaring ideals of education and society, and the hard and disappointing realities of everyday life. This disconnect formed a second disposition in which Rice was shaped by parsonage life. No place speaks of ideals more than America’s religious gatherings, and Rice came to admire the eloquence of his uncle, Bishop Coke Smith. “To listen to him preach was like quietly getting drunk,” he wrote, as “he led his hearers into an unreal world of effortless peace” that might last till Monday morning. But then it was back to the workaday world where ideals could not so easily be lived (Eighteenth Century 17-18).
American denominations founded colleges all across the country in the nineteenth century, schools Rice dismissed as “centers of piety rather than learning” (Eighteenth Century 71). But most such colleges professed broad liberal arts ideals of providing moral and spiritual leadership to society, taking pride in producing not only pastors but also judges and doctors and civic leaders of every type ( see Tewksbury 1-28, 55-58; Rudolph 44-67; Frank 35-68, 197-215). Rollins College, site of the heated controversy that ended with Rice’s collaboration in starting BMC, had been founded by a group of Congregationalist ministers in 1885. President Hamilton Holt drew on that heritage in designing and raising money among the wealthy of Winter Park, Florida, for a Mediterranean-style campus with a “great showplace” of a chapel as the centerpiece (Reynolds 79).
But Rice had learned early in parsonage life what it was like to be “back-stage in the big show that is the church; to know how the scenery is braced and how unsubstantial it is, to stumble over discarded paint cans and props, to be a prop oneself” (Eighteenth Century 58). Wary of grandiose rhetoric whether expressed in word or architecture, he lacerated the new Knowles Memorial Chapel (designed by noted ecclesiastical architect and Gothic revivalist Ralph Adams Cram) as soon as it opened in 1932, calling the public Christmas service there “obscene” and mocking the bronze plaque which declared the chapel open “to the glory of God” in small lettering and “to the memory of—in huge letters—somebody Knowles.” The year before at a religious conference hosted by the college, as Rice recalled he had stood with a question for the community audience. “ ‘If I should come along Interlaken Avenue tomorrow, Sunday, morning, and, instead of the churches, I should find green grass growing, what difference would it make, and to whom?’ ” This is a question that many pastors have put to their congregations over the years in an effort to get members more involved with the church’s purpose. But outside that pastoral context, Rice’s question was heard as hostile, indeed, as a wish that the churches did not exist (Eighteenth Century 301-02; Reynolds 79).
Yet Rice had no wish that either churches or colleges would be abolished. He was only seeking a searing honesty that ironically would make articulating and holding to an ideal very difficult. Indeed this preacher’s kid’s antennae were always out for any kind of pomposity or inflated notions, which made it almost impossible for him to share fully in any human ideal.
The one ideal to which he held most fiercely was his image of what a liberal arts education could be. He imagined BMC as “education for democracy” which, since a distinction of means and ends is spurious, meant that BMC must also be “education in democracy.” BMC was, Rice wrote in an article in Progressive Education in 1934, a “social unit” in which relationships were an integrated whole—relationships of students and faculty, of students and other students, and of work and activities inside and outside the frame of the classroom. This integration and lack of rigid educational and social boundaries would enable students to learn responsibility in the sense of having a full share and stake in the community of learning as a whole. “The whole community becomes his teacher,” Rice wrote in School and Home in 1935.
In order to advance American democracy, Rice believed that liberal arts education must be profoundly pragmatic and experiential in character. In a 1937 Harper’s Monthly article railing against Robert Maynard Hutchins’s proposal for a great books curriculum, Rice argued that Americans are “never given to the vice of abstraction,” knowing that “no education that leaves out action is education” for them. There was no justification for omitting all experience except the experience of reading and writing, as Rice characterized Hutchins’s views. “Why include what can be printed and leave out what must be seen and heard?” Not that a student does not want ideas; a student simply wants “ideas in use, to see them in action.” “When action and word merge and become one,” Rice concluded, “then shall we have the higher learning in America, and not before.”
In the context of American educational history, Rice’s ideas seem to express the ideals of Progressive education and the pragmatism of John Dewey especially. Dewey had visited Rice’s classes at Rollins, and came to BMC twice in 1934-35. Rice admired Dewey’s respect for the process of learning, his respect for people, and his commitment to the individual. Yet Rice hated labels, did not want to be associated with a party holding common views, and criticized so-called progressive educators (other than Dewey) for their domineering discourse that ran counter to their professed purposes (Eighteenth Century, 324-25, 331; Reynolds 74, 143).
This last, pragmatic and experiential disposition of Rice as educator had more tenacious roots in the religion in which he was raised and so thoroughly steeped than it did in his exposure to the progressive education movement. Rice teased Methodism for lacking any “great body of history and doctrine to be learned, as in the Catholic Church; Methodism had no history except the life of John Wesley, who had himself brought his doctrine to Georgia less than a hundred years before; and there was little of that, not more than a small brain could soon learn to parrot” (Eighteenth Century 123). But this lack of elaborated doctrine in a denomination that largely steered clear of dogmatic and creedal disputation was, as Rice well knew, Methodism’s strength.
Wesley wrote no systematic theology or ethics. His teachings stood on the twin pillars of personal growth through the interplay of reason and experience, and the centrality of the heart as mediator between head and hand. Thus, in a diverse world, the heart could be a meeting point between competing ideologies and muscular armies of force. As Wesley proposed in one of his most famous sermons, “May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” (Wesley 82). With hearts united, other differences of ideas and actions fall into perspective. Rice’s use of this same language and logic is quite striking. Modern individualism produces people who are “all brain and little heart,” he wrote, and soon they hit the “limits of sheer thinking.” But what if, “unafraid,” the individual could “look about him and see his fellows all in the same predicament, speak to them with his heart as well as his mind, acknowledge that they as well as he are both thinker and lover, and, losing nothing of himself, find all of himself within all humanity” (Eighteenth Century 334-35).
Other Protestant groups taunted the Methodists for having no systematic body of doctrine, a prejudice that seeped into the scholarship of American religious and cultural history such that historian of American evangelical religion, Nathan Hatch, admonished all historians to pay more attention to the Wesleyan tradition that had had such enormous influence in American culture. Indeed, only a generation before Rice’s birth in 1888, a third of all church members in the U.S. were Methodist, an astonishing popularity that sprang from a characteristically American preference for moral action over correct and inherited ideas. The Methodists became inveterate college-builders, founding hundreds of liberal arts colleges across the U.S. shaped by this passion for personal, practical growth in reason and experience that would lead to social progress (Hatch 23-40; Fink and Starke 56 ff.; Eighteenth Century 289).
Thus, the religion Rice heard from the pulpit, particularly from his father and his uncle, was not a lecture in religious creeds. It was almost universally a practical faith, grounded in the experience of trying to live faithfully. In this dynamic it is most companionable with pragmatism. Even today, many of the leading scholars from the Methodist tradition, such as Rebecca Chopp, until recently president of Swarthmore College whose then-president Frank Aydelotte was so helpful to Rice in starting BMC, build their work in conversation with the American philosophers of pragmatism.
Pragmatists argue that “practice” offers a middle ground or third way between a world of ideas and concepts, and a world of action. Practice is thoughtful or reflective action. As Rice put it to Louis Adamic in the Harper’s Monthly article of 1936 that brought BMC to public attention, “Education on a Mountain,” the point of education is not an admonition to “be intellectual” or its contrary “to be muscular.” The point is to “be intelligent”—blending books and the arts and manual labor and community governance into a holistic meld that nurtures imagination for living.
Where better to turn for enlivening the imagination than to the arts, through which students may apprehend the qualities that make a more humane world. In Adamic’s words, “Rice would like to see the world swarm with artists, poets . . . poets in the Greek sense of makers or creators [poesis] . . . who will go into the center of life and belong there [italics his].” As Rice wrote, “the integrity of the democratic man was the integrity of the artist . . . the integrity of relationship . . . between himself [the individual] and corporation [by which he meant in this context the collective community]” (Adamic 519). At BMC, Rice asserted, “our central and consistent effort is to teach method, not content; to emphasize process, not results . . . a grammar of the art of living and working in the world” (Eighteenth Century, 328-29). Rice appears in the main to have abhorred the religious language that he found so suffocating in his childhood, and certainly wanted no part of religious control of higher education. In the place of religion stood the arts and imagination; but his disposition was much the same. Through intelligent reason and experience, one apprehends order in the world and imagination for constructive change.
In his stinging rebuke of the Black Mountain College ideals reported in Adamic’s article, Harper’s editor Bernard De Voto linked Rice and the college to Transcendentalists such as George Ripley, Bronson Alcott, the Dial and the Harbinger, and the short-lived experimental communities of Brook Farm and Fruitlands. At BMC one sees “the same call for the second birth of the individual and the regeneration of society, the same mystical ecstasy, the same wild marriage of apocalyptic vision and untenable psychology—and the same jargon,” De Voto blazed. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see “an experimental college staffed by fanatical realists and fanatical cynics instead of idealists” (608). De Voto perhaps could overhear the religious overtones of Rice’s project at BMC, but he misinterpreted the sounds to mean something entirely different from Rice’s outlook. Steeped in a practical faith, putting practice and experience at the center of human formation, Rice was no apocalyptic fanatic or advocate for second births. He was a pragmatist, seeking a middle way between idealism and cynicism—a middle ground that he struggled to hold in his own swings of temperament.
Louis Adamic notably characterized Rice this way: “John Rice, a South Carolina preacher’s son, now forty-seven, is essentially an idealist-optimist . . . a bit of a fanatic” (519). John Andrew Rice was indeed a preacher’s son; and while no historian could ever draw out objective evidence of direct connections between his parsonage experiences and his adult life, I have argued here that Rice’s basic dispositions as an educator bear unmistakable resemblance to the dynamics of this early formation. What Adamic missed, of course, was that one of those dispositions is a relentless ricocheting between idealism and cynicism, between hopes for humanity and disappointment in human failings. At BMC, Rice’s cynicism finally got the best of him.
Rice was certainly ambivalent about his own upbringing and on the face of things flatly rejected much of it. Yet, even if in a momentary reverie of sentimentality, Rice wrote these words only a dozen lines from the very end of his book: “If I had my life to live over again . . . For father I should want again a man of God” (Eighteenth Century 340).
Rice’s parental inheritance of aspiration, for himself as educator, as for his students, as for democracy, was most evident at BMC. His dispositions, embodied in many forms in the life of the college, are surely at least one of the reasons this little school of only twenty-three years duration still stirs our imagination today.