For Office Use Only

Book Details


Father Edward McGlynn (1837-1900) was an American Catholic priest best known today as a close friend and associate of Henry George. He is also widely known for being excommunicated by his bishop during the reign of Pope Leo XIII.

McGlynn was born in New York City of Irish parents who came to the United States in 1824. Peter, his father, did well in the new country by setting up as a builder. Peter, however, died in 1847 when Edward was only ten years old; nevertheless, through years of hard work and good management, Peter left a small fortune to Sarah, his widow, and their ten children.

Little is known of the childhood of Edward McGlynn beyond the fact that he attended a small grammar school and later the “Free” Academy (1) from which he graduated at the age of thirteen. Yet despite his educational shortcomings, following upon his graduation, he was selected by the local bishop as promising material for the priesthood and sent to Rome to be educated at the Urban College of Propaganda. In 1859, after eight years in Rome, he received his doctorate in theology and philosophy and, one year later on 24 March, 1860, was ordained a priest (2). Thereafter he returned to New York where he became assistant to the Rev. Thomas Farrell at St. Joseph’s on Sixth Avenue.

Sadly, however, his return coincided with the outbreak of the awful war between the States. Needless to say, against the background of the war, Father Farrell was a strong influence on McGlynn. Farrell was widely known for his liberal views, his support for Abraham Lincoln and for his uncompromising opposition to chattel slavery, and turning his beliefs into actions, he left $5,000 in his will for the education of young people and for the establishment of a Black Catholic Church (3).

After only a short stay with Father Farrell, McGlynn served at two other churches, both of which had large populations of poor Irish; thus McGlynn saw his main task as helping these people to settle in. Surrounded by sickness and death, and with poverty writ large, McGlynn, ever the hard worker, threw himself into his work until his own health was impaired and, in 1862, he was sent to Europe to recuperate. Returning to America he was appointed chaplain of Central Park Military Hospital where his duties were less arduous; he retained this position until after the end of the Civil War.

Yet in spite of his hard work and unblemished record, it was in the 1860s that McGlynn drew criticism from his superiors for his close friendship with Protestant clergymen, in particular Henry Ward Beecher. The Beechers were a remarkable family whose founder had settled in Connecticut in 1638. Henry Beecher’s father, Lyman, a leading member of the new Presbyterian Church, was born in 1775 and died in 1863, leaving seven sons (each of whom was a clergyman), and six daughters, one of whom, Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe, won international fame when her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1851.

Edward McGlynn likewise drew criticism for his support of public or government-run schools and his opposition to parish or church-conducted schools, mainly on the grounds that public schools were well-run, and that money used for parish schools could be better spent elsewhere.

To understand fully the debate around teaching, and the religious fervour it stirred, it is necessary to first understand the centuries-old, unique role played by the Church in this matter. Churchmen held teaching to be part of a mission, a divinely inspired defence in modern times against the rising tide of liberalism, agnosticism and atheism. Conversely many believed Catholic schools were an intrusion into affairs of state; moreover, one which also used public funds for sectarian purposes. Others thought Pope Pius IX’s Encyclical on Papal Infallibility to be a farce along with the claim of primacy in all matters cultural, scientific and educational (4). There was vexation too over bloody riots in New York City in 1867, which many saw as being instigated by Irish Catholics; and equally telling, the predominance of Catholics in New York’s corrupt Tammany

Hall (5).

But education was not a debate confined to the United States; rather it was played out worldwide; even faraway sunny Australia was not spared. For example, Henry George himself was married to an Australian-born Catholic woman, one Annie Corsina Fox; and Annie’s mother, Elizabeth Fox nee McCluskey, was married to James Fox, a British soldier, in Sydney in 1839. The couple were married in St. Mary’s Church (later the Cathedral) by Father Francis Murphy, who, ever mindful of the machinations of dissenters, was in 1844 to be cast in the unhappy role of first Archbishop of Adelaide. Murphy wrote:

“The primary schools of this colony are supported and absolutely controlled by the government. You can imagine first of all what a gigantic plan of proselytization has been put into action by the system of state-supported schools… [I]n Adelaide Town and its suburbs alone, there are 67 government schools, attended by Catholic children as well as Protestants… I have only two schools… badly equipped to combat the lamentable proselytization.”(6)

Ergo, the cause of education was one Murphy would continue to fight until the end of his days. As a final word on this subject, we point out that nowhere was this matter of education played out harder than in France, where in 1882 and 1904 it was argued that the state should have a monopoly of education, or at least that no priests or sisters should be allowed to teach in public or private schools.

Looming large in America, and dwarfing even the education issue, was the land question. The regulation of the public lands of the United States has always been a matter of intense interest, not only for Americans, but for millions of prospective immigrants. The reason for this was plain: the easy access to land in earlier times made it relatively easy for people to get a living. Meanwhile, since so many people had simply settled wherever they fancied, it became necessary to pass legislation securing title for those who had made a permanent home in the wilderness. The bill was called the Pre-emption Act, and gave preferential purchase rights to the people living beyond the Ohio River. The act remained unchanged until 1852 when the granting of free homes again became a national issue. In that same year a small group of working-class men, calling themselves the Free-Soil Democracy Party, met in Pittsburg to nominate candidates for the Presidency. They argued that the land should be granted free of cost to landless settlers.

However, ten years later, in May 1862, with the march of the western settlers underway, Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act, which, among other things, confined families to small holdings with actual occupancy, improvements and cultivation as requisites for taking possession. Unfortunately, the Homestead Act came almost at the same time that Congress gave permission to the Union Pacific Railroad to build a railway and telegraph line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.

If one were seeking to understand the chaos of that period, the strikes, the extraordinary inequality of the distribution of wealth and so on, many Georgists would argue that there are few better places to begin their study than with the monopoly of natural opportunities that accompanied the granting of free land to the railways. To a modern generation, the extent of the grants seems scarcely credible. In addition to land upon which the trains would run, the government granted continuous strips on either side of the line, with additional land for stations, yards, sidings and so on. In one case, Northern Pacific received land consisting of sections two hundred miles wide, running from the western boundary of Minnesota to Puget Sound, an area of more than two hundred million acres, or more simply, an area equal to the combined areas of the United Kingdom and France (7). And since, theoretically, just over one million, six hundred acres are required to create a property one mile wide extending from New York to Los Angeles, it is easy to see how the settlers’ lot had worsened, and how those able and willing to work for themselves were prevented from so doing.

Meanwhile, Father McGlynn was feeling the burden of the never-ending procession of poor men and women begging at his door, not so much for alms as employment. He turned to a study of political economy. He soon came to realise that the received political wisdom of his time generally ignored the land question, while arguing that the nation’s prosperity depended wholly on having good men in Congress and a sound economy based on “hard” money. Nonetheless, J.D. Rockefeller’s money came from land, that is, from the oilfields of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Likewise, the Carnegie fortune came originally from land, with extra value coming from the government by way of special privileges in transportation and tariffs. Secret railway rebates, and the acquisition of the most advantageous coal and iron beds, enabled Carnegie to outdo his domestic rivals, while high tariffs worked to keep out foreign competition. Added to this, several dukes, earls and other British gentry owned more than twenty-one million acres of the United States (8).

Until the Civil War, strikes were relatively unknown in the United States. Workers might have protested by voting, even sometimes by rioting, but all this changed with what would be called the “great upheaval”of 1877, a series of events that focussed the nation’s attention upon a new class of workers, who possessed neither farm nor workshop. The catalyst for the change was the demise of Jay Cooke & Co., a leading banking house. In the ensuing chaos, five thousand businesses worth more than $300 million were forced to close their doors, whilst in excess of one million workers became unemployed. It was a bitter and degrading time, not least for those who took to the road looking for work and who, travelling in small groups for protection, were contemptuously labelled as tramps (9). Adding to the troubles, a railway company in West Virginia cut wages by ten percent; this followed cuts of twenty-five percent only weeks earlier. As a result of these cuts, hundreds of men broke into goods trains, looting the contents and setting fire to the cars. The number of locomotives and box cars destroyed by the strikers was sufficient to have made a train eleven miles long (10). Chicago, too, was a centre of violence, wherein more than forty strikers were shot dead, with more than seventy critically wounded. After days of violence, the arrival in Chicago of a battalion of regulars, led by Colonel Frederick Grant, the son of Ulysses S. Grant, was sufficient to end the chaos and the most violent phase of the struggle (11).

Nevertheless, while the emancipation of labour was still far off, other ideas were quietly gathering pace. Thus, in 1879 Henry George’s book Progress and Poverty was published. While George wrote against the background of the 1870s, the problems that he set out to solve were world-wide and recurring. Probably no other writer, before or since, has made the study of economics so interesting to so many. In its first three years the book went through a hundred editions, and Terence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor, the largest trade union in America, declared that the advocates of the single tax (a term never used in George’s book) came nearest to the remedy for the evils of the present capitalist system. Meanwhile McGlynn continued to argue that “free land meant free men”, and until the people had the first, the last was impossible. “So vital is this question”, he wrote, “that all other questions fade into insignificance beside it”(12). Furthermore, by 1886, he espoused the single tax doctrine as the universal and fundamental doctrine to end poverty. As a measure of his solidarity with George, McGlynn took an active part that year in George’s failed campaign for the office of mayor of New York City. This brought him into open conflict with his bishop, Archbishop Corrigan.

McGlynn had been warned previously, some four years earlier, to retract his views on the land question. He was warned again in September 1886 for speaking on behalf of George, earning a suspension from the bishop of two weeks. Likewise, in November that year a second temporary suspension was imposed for declaring publicly that not only was George worthy of becoming mayor, but president of the United States. Shortly thereafter, on 14th January, 1887, Archbishop Corrigan effectively removed McGlynn from the priesthood.

This marked the beginning of a period of six agonising years of

ex-communication for Father McGlynn, essentially for preaching an economic doctrine, the single tax theory, which his ecclesiastical superiors declared to be contrary to the Christian faith. One of the worst features of his suspension seems to have been that little account was taken of McGlynn’s extensive experience as a young priest in Rome, his work in the slums of New York, or his otherwise distinguished pastoral career. Moreover, McGlynn’s parish was intimately connected with the evangelical mission of the Church, and saw an important goal for itself in assisting new immigrants. While many of the new settlers were Catholics, who might easily have accepted various decrees on dogma, the economic facts of their impoverishment were another matter. As far as McGlynn was concerned, if the Church could not provide the answers for these people, despite their poverty, She would lose them.

Perhaps no clergyman of modern times had been more prominently brought to public attention than Dr. McGlynn, who, through falling in with Henry George, became very popular with radicals, while at the same time earning the disapproval of his bishop. However, it seems to this writer that McGlynn’s greatest strength lay in his willingness to defend the faith when it was clear that the cost of so doing would be very high. As was the case when the Archbishop of Quebec called for Progress and Poverty to be placed on the Vatican’s index of banned books.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that within a few years McGlynn also exceeded the limits set by George on this matter. He began to argue that the very possession of land was immoral. McGlynn continued to hold this view until, on the 4th July, 1887, a day which ironically coincided with the 111th anniversary of American independence, McGlynn was ex-communicated, though this did not end the matter.

Shortly thereafter, McGlynn’s supporters asked the question of whether it was British diplomacy that had secured the ex-communication, for McGlynn was well-known in Ireland, wherein a terrorist war was being waged by the Land League. Many of McGlynn’s supporters argued that the action was taken in the hope of enlisting British aid in restoring the Vatican’s temporal power. Regardless of the truth or otherwise of this, it should be noted that McGlynn’s ex-communication was quickly followed by one more edict, the gist of which confirmed that Catholics everywhere risked sharing McGlynn’s fate should they remain with the Land League or continue to support Michael Davitt, a regular visitor to America and one of the leaders of the League.       Disregarding his ex-communication, McGlynn continued to make speeches on the land question to increasingly large crowds. These speeches were generally made on behalf of the Anti-Poverty Society, the leadership of which he shared with Henry George.

Five years later, however, Pope Leo XIII sent one Archbishop Satoli to America with instructions to re-examine the McGlynn case. At Satoli’s suggestion McGlynn wrote a paper stating in precise terms what he had been preaching. This paper was then submitted by Satoli to a committee of four professors of the Catholic University at Washington, all of whom agreed that McGlynn’s submission contained nothing that was contrary to the teaching of the Church. The ban of ex-communication was thereupon removed, and the next day, Christmas, 1892, McGlynn was again able to celebrate the Mass. The following June he visited Rome and was cordially received in private audience by the Pope, and whilst nothing was published concerning the meeting, in the years following his restoration to the priesthood, McGlynn made it clear that he had not been required by the Pope to retract his views on the land question. Ergo, the single tax did not contravene the ethical teachings of the Church.

Henry George died in 1897; and Edward McGlynn three years later, of Bright’s disease, by coincidence the same disease that took off John Farrell, Australia’s leading Georgist, in 1904. McGlynn’s last words were “Jesus, have mercy on me”. It was estimated that thirty thousand mourners were present at his funeral, along with one hundred Catholic priests, and a similar number of Protestant ministers. A review of his personal affairs found that he was at least $10,000 in debt, due to his charitable activities.

Vale Edward McGlynn. Requiescat in pace.

1.  Stephen Bell.  Edward McGlynn, Priest and Prophet.

Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, New York, 1968.

2.  Ibidem

3.  Ibidem

4.  Marvin R. O’Connell.  Critics on trial.

Catholic University Press, Washington, 1994.

5.  Thomas Nast St. Hill. Thomas Nast.

Dover, New York, 1974.

6.  James Waldersee.  A Grain of Mustard Seed.

Chevalier, Sydney, 1983.

7. Terence Powderly.  The Path I Trod.

AMS Press, New York, 1968.

8.  Rev. William H. Carwardine.  The Pulman Strike.

Charles H. Kerr, Chicago, 1974.

9.  Louis Adamic.  Dynamite.

Rebel Pres, London, 1984.

10.  Ibidem

11.  Ibidem

12.  John Farrell.  The single tax.

J. Farrell, Sydney, Jan. 1896.

Alan Katen Dunstan

Advanced Search

©2010 Association for Good Government | Web Site Design by BUNOLOGY