Theron Ware's Damnation and Catholicism, Then and Now

The novel The Damnation of Theron Ware, published in 1896, unspools the tale of a young Methodist minister who, thanks to Catholics, science, bohemianism, and good old American pragmatism, loses his faith. Yes, Reverend Theron Ware was vulnerable, no doubt. His pride, limited intellectual, spiritual and social background as well as the bitter, humiliating realities of church life rendered him susceptible to the possibility of damnation— or “illumination” as the novel’s original title slyly suggests; but what a journey it is, a complex trajectory put in motion and shaped by entanglements with a Catholic priest, a Darwinian biologist, an aesthete “new woman,” and the remarkable Sister Soulsby—a blowsy, confident traveling church fundraiser. I learned of the book while perusing the late critic Jonathan Yardley’s list of books worth a “Second Reading.” He said of Theron Ware:

Theron Ware’s story will remind today’s reader of the one told three decades later by Dreiser in “An American Tragedy”: a young man married to a woman of his own modest class becomes infatuated with a woman beyond his reach and pays terrible consequences for it. Dreiser’s novel is the more famous, but Frederic’s is the better. It gives us America at a watershed moment in its history, with science advancing and orthodox religion retreating, with the old Anglo oligarchy challenged by new immigrants, with sexuality slowly moving beyond closed doors and shadows, with ambition becoming more rank and unashamed, with early stirrings of what we now know as feminism. More than a century after its publication it remains vivid and pertinent.

I would add that for many of us—and what I’ll be highlighting here—Theron Ware holds interest for what its author relates about the lives of Catholics and his own understanding—as a non-Catholic, but an astute observer—of Catholicism.

That author was Harold Frederic (1856-1898), a journalist whose early life was centered in New York, but who hit his professional stride as the London correspondent for the New York Times. He was only 42 when he died, just two years after the 1896 publication of Theron Ware. Ironically, the author of this sharp-eyed look at the American way of Religion died in the aftermath of a stroke for which his common-law wife (he had a legal wife as well) relied on a Christian Science practitioner for his treatment. It did not work. She and the practitioner were subsequently tried on manslaughter charges for Frederic’s death and acquitted.

As the novel begins, Theron Ware awaits his third pastoral assignment. His hopes are high for what is to come, not only because he is acknowledged as a skilled preacher, but because his last assignment was difficult. Where can one go from here, after all, but up? Theron is mistaken, of course. When he arrives at his disappointing new assignment in Octavius (a stand-in for Utica, Frederic’s hometown), he finds little but challenges. The push-and-pull of local church life is laid out in painful detail, and while the specifics may be particular to this denomination at this time, the general dynamic will be familiar to anyone in any sort of ministry, I think: a dynamic that comes down to the inevitability of ideals crushed by reality. Cruelly.

In this case, Theron is constrained by the restrictive financial position of the church trustees (one of whom never even attends services) and is confronted with theological strains related to Free Methodism. Free Methodists emphasized Pentecostal-type practices and plainness in demeanor and dress. In many parts of the country the Free Methodists had broken off from the main Methodist body, but not in the fictional Octavius, where adherents remained part of the congregation. The Octavius Free Methodists are scandalized by, among other important matters, the flowers in Mrs. Ware’s hat:

“We are a plain sort o’ folks up in these parts,” said Brother Pierce, after a slight further pause. His voice was as dry and rasping as his cough, and its intonations were those of authority. “We walk here,” he went on, eying the minister with a sour regard, “in a meek an’ humble spirit, in the straight an’ narrow way which leadeth unto life. We ain’t gone traipsin’ after strange gods, like some people that call themselves Methodists in other places. We stick by the Discipline an’ the ways of our fathers in Israel. No new-fangled notions can go down here. Your wife’d better take them flowers out of her bunnit afore next Sunday.”

So here is Theron Ware, feeling completely unappreciated, certainly locally, but perhaps even cosmically, at odds with important members of his congregation and financially scraping by. He cannot do much about the first two points beyond having his wife strip her bunnit, but perhaps he can bring in some extra income, and what more predictable way for an educated, articulate churchman to make money than to write a book? Not that unreasonable, but less reasonably, Theron decides that the path to publishing success is a book about . . . the patriarch Abraham. The trouble is, he discovers as he sits down to begin, he does not actually know very much about Abraham.

This is a problem to ponder on a walk about town, of course. Perhaps you cannot predict exactly what follows, but familiar with dramatic arcs in general, you might guess the direction in which Theron’s walk will take him: in a state of emotional, mental and spiritual unrest, he is vulnerable. Who would expect, though, that in that vulnerability, he would encounter the Catholics? It is a dreadful scene Theron happens upon: a workman has suffered mortal injuries and is being carried to his home in the Irish area of town. Theron decides, fatefully, to follow.

Not surprisingly, Reverend WASP has never really had much interaction with the Irish, and certainly not with Catholics. His sense of immigrants and Catholics is bigoted and narrow, in his imagination culminating in “a spectral picture of some black-robed tonsured men, with leering satanic masks, making a bonfire of the Bible in the public schools.”

The injured man is carried into his tiny, impoverished home, his family and neighbors awaiting, not a doctor, whose presence would be useless, but for, naturally, the priest. Theron notices a figure who stands apart from this working-class crowd: a tall, well-dressed young woman. She nods at him as if there is nothing unusual about his presence. He is not unwelcome and perhaps even in some mysterious sense, expected. As we soon learn, she is Celia Madden, the daughter of a wealthy local Irish businessman, the parish organist, as well as a devotee of a superficial, but nonetheless seductive pagan bohemianism which will prove, in the end, irresistible to Reverend Theron Ware.

But here, Celia’s function is to manage the situation, and assist the priest in his ministrations. I quote the scene at length for its inherent drama, the picture it paints of Catholicism, and of course, its impact on Theron Ware:

She moved over to where the woman of the house stood, glum-faced and tearless, and whispered something to her. A confused movement among the crowd followed, and out of it presently resulted a small table, covered with a white cloth, and bearing on it two unlighted candles, a basin of water, and a spoon, which was brought forward and placed in readiness before the closed door. Some of those nearest this cleared space were kneeling now, and murmuring a low buzz of prayer to the click of beads on their rosaries.

The door opened, and Theron saw the priest standing in the doorway with an uplifted hand. He wore now a surplice, with a purple band over his shoulders, and on his pale face there shone a tranquil and tender light.

One of the workmen fetched from the stove a brand, lighted the two candles, and bore the table with its contents into the bedroom. The young woman plucked Theron’s sleeve, and he dumbly followed her into the chamber of death, making one of the group of a dozen, headed by Mrs. MacEvoy and her children, which filled the little room, and overflowed now outward to the street door. He found himself bowing with the others to receive the sprinkled holy water from the priest’s white fingers; kneeling with the others for the prayers; following in impressed silence with the others the strange ceremonial by which the priest traced crosses of holy oil with his thumb upon the eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands, and feet of the dying man, wiping off the oil with a piece of cotton-batting each time after he had repeated the invocation to forgiveness for that particular sense. But most of all he was moved by the rich, novel sound of the Latin as the priest rolled it forth in the ASPERGES ME, DOMINE, and MISEREATUR VESTRI OMNIPOTENS DEUS, with its soft Continental vowels and liquid R’s. It seemed to him that he had never really heard Latin before. Then the astonishing young woman with the red hair declaimed the CONFITEOR, vigorously and with a resonant distinctness of enunciation. It was a different Latin, harsher and more sonorous; and while it still dominated the murmured undertone of the other’s prayers, the last moment came.

Theron had stood face to face with death at many other bedsides; no other final scene had stirred him like this. It must have been the girl’s Latin chant, with its clanging reiteration of the great names—BEATUM MICHAELEM ARCHANGELUM, BEATUM JOANNEM BAPTISTAM, SANCTOS APOSTOLOS PETRUM ET PAULUM—invoked with such proud confidence in this squalid little shanty, which so strangely affected him.

He came out with the others at last—the candles and the folded hands over the crucifix left behind—and walked as one in a dream. Even by the time that he had gained the outer doorway, and stood blinking at the bright light and filling his lungs with honest air once more, it had begun to seem incredible to him that he had seen and done all this.

What a revelation this is to Theron, not just of another corner of life previously unknown, but of a mystery. He has encountered something elemental here, a coming together of heaven and earth, the powers of the cosmos brought down into an impoverished hovel by way of an ancient language. His sense, not only of what is acceptable and normative, but perhaps even of what is real, has developed a crack. Intrigued and curious, on another evening, Theron takes another stroll. His destination this time is the Catholic rectory, the excuse being a hope that the priest might have resources to help him with his Abrahamic magnum opus.

It is a telling scene that follows. Frederic was not Catholic, but was friends with one controversial priest, Edward Terry, and familiar with the cases of two others, famed for their progressive social and religious views, Richard Burtsell and Edward McGlynn, the last a supporter of reformer Henry George who was excommunicated by New York’s Archbishop Corrigan from 1887 to 1892.

As he reaches the page, the character of Father Forbes is not a political figure, but his character’s words and actions provide a window into the varied forces working in nineteenth century American Catholicism: new Scriptural scholarship, tensions between clergy and bishops, and the ever-living question of what it meant to be an American and a Catholic. Additionally, the words Frederic puts in his characters’ mouths as they consider the respective natures of Protestantism and Catholicism intriguingly reflect issues at play then, and now.

Let us return to the rectory. Theron is escorted in as Father Forbes and his close local friend, an unbelieving scientist named Dr. Ledsmar, are dining. Lest we assume that Theron’s encounter with the priest will introduce him to the breadth and depth of Catholic historical theology and Scriptural interpretation, we immediately see otherwise. For, as it turns out, Father Forbes is, indeed, deeply aware of theological scholarship—the latest theological scholarship, in fact, which means that he almost immediately disabuses poor Theron of his quaint assumption that Abraham was an actual historical figure. Then, as a devotee of Renan, the priest breaks the crack in Theron’s world wide open when he casually tosses off a reference to “this Christ-myth of ours.” And proceeds to excuse himself, and leaves the room to minister to the parishioners who’ve been waiting patiently for him downstairs.

Theron is confounded. The priest’s views are almost dismissive of the faith his role embodies, the powerful mystery his presence had brought to the dying workman’s home, and what the people he has gone to serve surely assume he believes. He learns that Father Forbes does not even preach at Mass. The doctor patiently explains that there was no reason to, since hardly any in the congregation would be able to comprehend his points, and those that even came close would complain to the bishop about him:

Nobody wants him to preach, and he has reached an age where personal vanity no longer tempts him to do so. What IS wanted of him is that he should be the paternal, ceremonial, authoritative head and centre of his flock, adviser, monitor, overseer, elder brother, friend, patron, seigneur—whatever you like—everything except a bore. They draw the line at that. You see how diametrically opposed this Catholic point of view is to the Protestant.

Which brings Theron to his final observation of this moment: the people waiting for Father Forbes are here either for confession or to take “the pledge”—not to drink, which indicates that they have been drinking to excess, and therefore engaging in sinful behavior. Frederic uses the following conversation between Theron and Dr. Landsmer on this point to elucidate a view of the differences between the religious bodies:

“Now, I daresay you have no people at all coming to ‘swear off.’”

The Rev. Mr. Ware shook his head. “No; if a man with us got as bad as all that, he wouldn’t come near the church at all. He’d simply drop out, and there would be an end to it.”

“Quite so,” interjected the doctor. “That is the voluntary system. But these fellows can’t drop out. There’s no bottom to the Catholic Church. Everything that’s in, stays in. If you don’t mind my saying so—of course I view you all impartially from the outside—but it seems logical to me that a church should exist for those who need its help, and not for those who by their own profession are so good already that it is they who help the church. Now, you turn a man out of your church who behaves badly: that must be on the theory that his remaining in would injure the church, and that in turn involves the idea that it is the excellent character of the parishioners which imparts virtue to the church. The Catholics’ conception, you see, is quite the converse. Such virtue as they keep in stock is on tap, so to speak, here in the church itself, and the parishioners come and get some for themselves according to their need for it. Some come every day, some only once a year, some perhaps never between their baptism and their funeral. But they all have a right here, the professional burglar every whit as much as the speckless saint. The only stipulation is that they oughtn’t to come under false pretences: the burglar is in honor bound not to pass himself off to his priest as the saint. But that is merely a moral obligation, established in the burglar’s own interest. It does him no good to come unless he feels that he is playing the rules of the game, and one of these is confession. If he cheats there, he knows that he is cheating nobody but himself, and might much better have stopped away altogether.”

Theron nodded his head comprehendingly. He had a great many views about the Romanish rite of confession which did not at all square with this statement of the case, but this did not seem a specially fit time for bringing them forth. There was indeed a sense of languid repletion in his mind, as if it had been overfed and wanted to lie down for awhile. He contented himself with nodding again, and murmuring reflectively, “Yes, it is all strangely different.”

His tone was an invitation to silence; and the doctor turned his attention to the cigar, studying its ash for a minute with an air of deep meditation, and then solemnly blowing out a slow series of smoke-rings. Theron watched him with an indolent, placid eye, wondering lazily if it was, after all, so very pleasant to smoke.

And here we go, accompanying Theron on his downfall. There’s a great deal to it beyond Catholics, some reflecting social, intellectual and spiritual elements of nineteenth century American life, and others telling us the eternal story of an arrogant naif determinedly seeking the greener pastures for which he is convinced he was made, only to find himself in the ditch to which his pride blinded him.

So yes, there are many reasons to take a look at The Damnation of Theron Ware—it is an entertaining tale that reveals much about the past, human foibles and the uses (and abuses) of religion. But here I highlighted some of the Catholic-specific material, not just because I am always interested in a bit of Catholic history, but because I think it is helpful in understanding contemporary conversations. Todos, todos, todos! The overriding concern of Catholic leadership in the present moment seems to be to correct a supposed view that the Church is an excusive (rigid) institution. Everyone is welcome, we are assured—and we are assured, as well, that this good news is brand new news.

Of course it is not, considering Jesus Christ himself told his disciples to “go out to the whole world” and for a couple of thousand years, they and their successors did just that. If the purpose of the Church is to bring Creation, broken by sin, back to God, reconciled in Christ . . . of course ”todos.” Of course. Who doesn’t know that?

But then we are brought into even more conversations about what that means, how and who. Endless conversations about that. A historical relic like The Damnation of Theron Ware gives unique insight into how the todos of Catholicism was understood in the past, even by outsiders: solid, rooted in God’s will not our own, always there, demanding, but also respectful of free will—and, importantly, not dependent on our own personalities or experiences.

Everything’s that’s in, stays in. Is it a hopeful, realistic vision or a cynical one? Does the understanding of Catholicism articulated by Frederic’s characters leave us with an institution that is solid and dependable because it is not dependent on the individual qualities of the minister or the local church community—because it exists beyond our individual foibles and desires—or does it leave us with one that, because of those same qualities, is better able to harbor hypocrisy and in the end, enables complacency?

Is the barely-believing Father Forbes’ ministry a sign of the Church’s strength or its weakness? Or potentially—as is the case with most elements of human life it seems—in fact, both?

Featured Image: Ferdinand Hodler, The Disillusioned One, 1892; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Amy Welborn

Amy Welborn is the author of over two dozen books on Catholic spirituality and history for adults, youth, and children. Her website can be found here.

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