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Decline revisited: Implosion

June 30, 2010

The decline of the WASP, part two

A representative tale of the fragmentation of the class in the 1960s.

From the website of the Brooklyn Historical Society:

John Howard Melish, William Howard Melish, and Church of the Holy Trinity Collection

This collection contains papers from William Howard Melish; Mary Jane Melish, his wife; Francis H. Touchet, a member of the Holy Trinity parish who wrote a doctoral thesis titled The Social Gospel and the Cold War: A History of the Melish Case; and Anna May Mason, a long-time parishioner who kept records of her extensive involvement with the church and the “Melish Case.”

The Church of the Holy Trinity (BHS Series 1: folder 1)

The Melish Case started in 1948, when the vestry of the Church of the Holy Trinity, located at Clinton and Montague Streets in downtown Brooklyn, asked their rector to find a replacement for his assistant. They considered “that certain outside activities of the Assistant rector were most detrimental to the interests of Holy Trinity Church” (Series 4: folder 2). The rector refused, the vestry sought to remove them both, and ten years later, after court battles in the Church and Civil Courts and attention from the mainstream, international, and Church press, the Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Long Island closed down the church.

John Howard Melish, ca. 1910 (BHS Portrait collection)

Like Father, Like Son

The rector in question was the Rev. John Howard Melish, born in Milford, Ohio in 1874, the son of the Rev. Thomas Jefferson Melish, the rector of St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Cincinnati. The bulk of the collection covers the years 1947-1958, a time when Dr. Melish stood less in the spotlight of public affairs, but some events from his early life and activities at Holy Trinity can still be gleaned from the material.

Dr. Melish studied at the University of Cincinnati, then at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass., and received his doctorate from Harvard Divinity School. He came to the Church of the Holy Trinity as rector in 1904 after a brief stint as associate rector at Christ Church in Cincinnati.

His was always a progressive voice in the Church. In 1915 he led the effort to give women parishioners the right to vote in the annual parish meetings of the Episcopal Church. A pamphlet he penned for that fight, Democracy and Woman Suffrage (8:1), was held in high regard and later used in the struggle for women’s suffrage on the national level. He fought for better labor conditions, and was a fraternal delegate to the Central Trades Labor Council of Greater New York. When Dr. Melish was on the stand at the Supreme Court trial (see next section), Justice Steinbrink said, “Tell them about some of the old Brooklyn political bosses that you and I helped to unseat” (3:5). Later on in life, his main crusade was housing for the poor. Among his endeavors in pursuit of that goal, he served as the Chairman of the Brooklyn Committee for Better Housing.

William Howard Melish, ca. 1940 (3:4)

The Assistant rector was William Howard Melish, the son of John Howard Melish. The younger Melish was born in 1910 in Brooklyn and was raised around his father’s activities as pastor at Holy Trinity. He also entered the ministry, like his father and grandfather had before him. Toward that end he attended Harvard, then Jesus College, Cambridge, then another alma mater of his father, the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass. He too was an assistant pastor for a year in Cincinnati before his father asked him, in 1938, to come back to Holy Trinity to serve as the Assistant rector.

At Holy Trinity, William Howard Melish continued his father’s emphasis on the struggle for worker’s rights and the effort to include a diverse population in the parish. He served as chairman of the International Justice and Good Will Commission in the Brooklyn Church and Mission Federation and the Vice-President of the Kings County American Labor Party. He also helped to found, and served as the Chairman of, the National Council for Soviet-American Friendship (NCSAF).

William Howard Melish serving tea (3:4)

The Controversy Begins

It was his progressive politics in general, and the position he held as Chairman of the NCSAF in particular, that discomforted certain members of the vestry at a time when the spectre of Communism was framed as the antithesis of all things good, wholesome, and American. In 1948, the Attorney General of the United States labeled the NCSAF a “subversive organization” (5:11). William Howard Melish soon landed in the pages of Time Magazine and Newsweek (3:4) as a “fellow traveler” of communism.

The vestry reacted to this attention from the mainstream press by asking the elder Melish to replace his son. He refused, so they voted to separate the parish from its rector of 45 years.

The Melishes challenged the vote, and the case made its way through both the Church and Civil Courts. Soon the Bishop of Long Island, James Pernette DeWolfe, was heavily involved in the matter. The courts upheld the bishop’s ruling that John Howard Melish was no longer the rector at Holy Trinity. Nonetheless, the younger Melish continued to preach, serving as the standing rector. Thus ended, in 1951, the first wave of the Controversy.

The Second Wave

For five years William Howard Melish continued with the duties of a pastor at the Church of the Holy Trinity in relative peace. He lived in the rectory with his father, his wife, and his children. He published pamphlets, gave sermons, such as When Christians Become “Subversive,” (8:2), and wrote a book titled Strength for Struggle: Christian Social Witness in the Crucible of These Times.

When Christians Become Subversive (8:2)

The conflict at Holy Trinity, however, was far from over. Starting in 1955 the Bishop named a series of successors to take the place of William Howard Melish as rector, but none of them could force Melish to leave the post. On one exciting Sunday, Melish and the Rev. Robert Kollock Thomas led overlapping services from the pulpit until Thomas gave up and left the church. At one point, the vestry changed the locks on the church to keep Melish out, then, once the doors were forced open and the locks removed, Melish supporters did the same to keep out the vestry. In 1957 a newly elected vestry, led by Lewis Reynolds, a parishioner who had formerly been on the Committee to Retain Our Rector, a “pro-Melish” group formed during the first wave of the Controversy, voted to replace Melish with a new rector, Dr. Herman Sidener, who was chosen after others declined. This action led to a repeat of the former round of court arguments and legal maneuvering that lasted four years. Bills were introduced before the State Legislature of New York that would ratify the vote of the vestry. The Melishes were accused of packing the church with their supporters, whereas the Bishop and vestry were accused of elitism and racism directed at the newer members of the parish (5:34).

Eventually, the Bishop ordered the church closed. Most of the parish, including William Howard Melish and his wife, began to attend services at nearby Grace Church. In 1961, the Bishop declared the church “extinct,” and its ownership transferred from the parish to the Diocese of Long Island (7:4). John Howard Melish lived in the rectory until his death in 1969. That same year the parish from St. Ann’s church moved to Holy Trinity and it was renamed the Church of St. Ann’s and the Holy Trinity.

Gems in the collection

The collection includes a number of letters between William Howard Melish and Mr. Ralph E. Wager, who wishes to write a biography about Bouck White. White, a friend of the elder Melish and a controversial minister in the Episcopal church, helped to set up youth athletic programs at Holy Trinity. His notoriety was due in part to The Call of the Carpenter, a book he wrote, published in 1911, which portrayed Jesus Christ from a socialist’s standpoint.

A pamphlet written about the Melishes by Arthur Miller (8:5)

Personal letters, as well as congregation-wide mailings and official requests, shed some light on the troublesome years of the Melish Case. This correspondence includes missives from William Howard Melish to his father, from Dr. Herman Sidener to Ms. Anna May Mason, and from the vestry to the parishioners.

The collection contains long runs of relevant serials, from the Holy Trinity Parish News to The Churchman, a national journal now known as Human Quest. The self-published works of both the Melishes and their friends, such as Arthur Miller, add further value to the collection.

Legal records from the Melish Case and administrative records from both the Church of the Holy Trinity and Trinity House, its non-sectarian, co-ed residence club, are also included in the collection. See the finding aid (PDF) for more information.

The Brooklyn Historical Society is located at 128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. It has possibly the most beautiful library in the city, fascinating collections, and  it is well worth a visit.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 27, 2013 10:23 am

    When I came to New York City as a college girl for the summer of 1966. I worked for Howard Melish. He had a small office at 799 Broadway where he raised money for the Southern Conference Education Fund. He certainly was the consummate gentleman! He kept a bottle of bourbon in the supply cabinet and each day at 3 o’clock we would stop what we were doing–this was in the days before answering machines even–to enjoy a nip and conversation. He insisted on interesting stamps for the party invitations we sent out and sat with me while I stamped envelopes, apparently to converse but maybe to make sure I affixed the stamps right side up. I was never able to develop a taste for bourbon but I am still careful about stamps and addressing people I don’t well by their surnames, as per his example.
    Thanks for the interesting historical background.

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