Robert A. Woods: The recovery of the parish

South End, Boston by Thomas Julin. Wikimedia ccby3 licence- South End, Boston by Thomas Julin. Wikimedia ccby3 licence

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Robert A. Woods (1912) states, and argues for, the fostering of association, co-operation and common welfare.

Robert Archey Woods (1965-1925) was a key figure in the introduction and development of university and social settlements in the United States. Founder and Head of South End House, Boston (1895-1925) and Secretary of the National Federation of Settlements from 1911 to just before his death he was both an important animator and organizer, and exponent of settlement work. Many of his important papers were published in 1923 as The Neighborhood in Nation  Building. Other important works include English Social Movements (1891) and Handbook of Settlements (1911) and The Settlement Horizon (1922) (the last two were written with Albert J. Kennedy).

‘The recovery of the parish’ was (and is) an important contribution to debates about the role of churches in their communities. Robert A. Woods lays considerable stress on what can be learnt from engaging in local life – and the contribution that churches can make. An ‘outlet of service is the essential precursor of grace’ he wrote. The parish, ‘is simply a downright practical contrivance for seeing to it that the gospel is imparted to every creature, taking them all as they come, seeing that none is overlooked, and that none get away from the range of the spiritual power of the gospel’. Woods continued:

For the renewed application of the gospel in terms of fully developed, that is social, democracy, the Church has an inconceivably great opportunity in reinterpreting, recapitalizing, and glorifying anew the meaning of every little local community in the midst of which every local church is planted. It is true once again that it is not “lo here, or to there”; there is a social sense in which the Kingdom of God in its vital and in its revolutionary sense is within you.

He ends with a call for churches to have guilds ‘analogous in present-day terms to the original class-meetings of the Wesleys’. These would be the means that those ‘actively engaged in social work could be kept continuously alert to the highest motives, the broadest bearings, the noblest ends of what they have in hand’.

Links: Robert A. Woods · Woods – University settlements, their point and drift · Settlements and social action centres
Note: the page numbers in this version refer to The Neighbourhood in Nation-Building (1923)

[page 133] Association is the keynote of modern industry. It is often thought that mechanical invention is the distinguishing characteristic of the factory system. The truth is that associated industry had developed the inventions, organized the teams of workmen that are necessary to operate these collective tools, and opened up the vast market which is necessary to sustain modern industrialism. The dominant power of industrialism is quite properly not the inventor, but the organizer and administrator. He understands the fundamental mystery, that of dovetailing together the work of many different kinds of men. The distinctive principle of production under the factory system is that two men working together can produce more in the total than when working separately. This surplus is sometimes very large. It represents the results of the new increment of power which is being developed in the brain cells of the coöperative type of man. The organization of labor, which by a strange halting of the intellect in the minds of many men who have mastered the principles of association on the employer’s side, seems to be a weird, irrational intrusion, is in fact a natural, inevitable outcome of the essential life of the factory system. It is as logical as the factory itself.

Industrial association is peculiarly purposeful. Its whole assembled power is under momentum of action and pointed for results. The struggle of the present age is to make this positiveness ethical, to have it act exclusively toward the fulfillment of life. Meanwhile there are other great spheres [page 134] of life in which the principle of association has had a much longer and fuller history, which are more ethically motived, sometimes much more, than is factory industry, but which gravely lack the inward energy and the outward enterprise of modern business. These varied fields of human fellowship offer inconceivable possibilities in the way of moral adventure. The spirit of moral adventure is essential in order to irradiate everywhere the whole atmosphere of fellowship and bring it away from mere passive sentimentalism or super-refined gregariousness, out into the light of common convictions won by organized and systematic team play in a common human cause.

Personality in the setting of family and neighborhood ties has always been the fundamental starting-point of Christianity, both in its thought and in its activity. Fatherhood, sonship, brotherhood, neighbor-love, these are the conceptions which are taken for granted and serve forth the essential clues to the fundamental principles of religion. In the specific spiritual service of the Church, the individual is kept always in moral relations with his home and his local community. The parish has been in most periods actually, and in others theoretically, the chosen community unit of every individual body of believers. This start which the local church has in ancient tradition with the local neighborhood constitutes the chief unused asset which the Church has to-day among the agencies of social reform and progress.

There is a serious danger that the rising tide of interest on the part of the Church in social problems will simply lead to vague and scattered efforts in connection with this, that, or the other organized reform. It is quite easy to get into the position of the schoolgirl writing home and underlining every word. The net effect is the same as if there had been no emphasis at all. Indeed, it is quite possible to rouse a great movement for social morality and progress in the [page 135] Church which shall after very considerable activity lead to discouragement and reaction.

The true point of attack for the Church is the local neighborhood. This is also where the structural upbuilding of society has to begin. This is the distinctive unit and organ of social reconstruction. The neighborhood is the very pith and core and kernel and marrow of organic democracy. Democracy is a coöperative society made up of people just as they come; and so far as there is democracy, people must be taken precisely that way, just as they come. Likewise, in its fundamental meaning, the parish is simply a downright practical contrivance for seeing to it that the gospel is imparted to every creature, taking them all as they come, seeing that none is overlooked, and that none get away from the range of the spiritual power of the gospel.

For the renewed application of the gospel in terms of fully developed, that is social, democracy, the Church has an inconceivably great opportunity in reinterpreting, recapitalizing, and glorifying anew the meaning of every little local community in the midst of which every local church is planted. It is true once again that it is not “lo here, or to there”; there is a social sense in which the Kingdom of God in its vital and in its revolutionary sense is within you.

Without in the least underestimating any of the other forms of relationship, I do not hesitate to say that a cultivated and developed neighborly acquaintance and neighborly fellowship in action, traversing all the distinctions which keep any kinds of human beings apart, is fundamental and indispensable to every man, woman, and child who would be to-day’s kind of patriot and Christian. Nor do I hesitate to say that if the contagion of that sort of local human loyalty and coöperation could lay hold of the Church-as a revival of true and ancient Christianity-the Church, instead of being continually forced into an apologetic attitude [page 136] in the face of the general social situation, would soon take the lead of the whole reconstruction process. Dynamic forces would be tapped in this way which would lead to far-reaching and wide-spreading action upon the whole range of social problems. A new statesmanship would be developed out of the organized synthesis of actual experience, from neighborhood to neighborhood, from town to town, from city to city, of the great dominating mass of people of good will from all parties, from all classes, from all races and from all sects.

Neighborhood fellowship, without in the least lowering the value of any special loyalty of culture, tradition, or faith, can penetrate and surround them all as radium can carry its ray through apparently solid objects. This constitutes the marvelous power of the neighborhood idea and its surpassing adaptability to our political and moral needs. The neighborhood is thus the first unit of measurement for the progress of the Kingdom of God; and it stands ready to the band of every local church.

The sad fact about the Church, from the point of view of thoroughgoing social progress, is not so much that it is not informed and active about great labor contests, or about the broad principles of reform in municipal administration, or about the necessity of National regulation of trusts, or even about broader public moral problems such as child labor and prostitution. The serious thing is that practically every Christian church in the entire country to-day is allowing itself to remain in the attitude of a divisive, disintegrating influence, instead of a center for the promotion of catholic human fellowship and coöperation in its neighborhood, in the local community, for whose democratic progress it stands in the most solemn of all conceivable responsibilities.

This is not in the remotest sense a challenge to a formless and structureless Christian unity or uniformity. It does [page 137] mean that every individual body of Christians in every local community must, as Christians, go freely forth out into the community making common cause with every other sort of Christian and every other sort of man of good will, including in their degree even the publicans and sinners, just in so far as they are ready to join forces for any single step toward the filling-out of any phase of the divine plan for any or all of the men, women, and children of that particular community.

The apparently reckless pouring of its energy out into the open life of the community on the part of any particular local church, with careful avoidance of any appearance of seeking to glorify itself-the stirring of other churches in the vicinity to like action-would mean a new moral and spiritual life in any local community. Instead of reducing the amount of force available for the purely spiritual work of the Church, it would bring into a kindling spiritual experience many from among that three fourths of the membership of every church which is never even for a moment really involved in the battle. These would return to the shrine under a spiritual momentum, ready to receive and ready to serve in spiritual things as never before.

This is not even to suggest that the individual churches turn away from any form of fellowship that may go with sustaining the inner loyalty of its own members. The social work of the local church within its own lines would even be strengthened by its taking its free part through now inactive members in progressive social activity of the community at large. In other words, the great principle upon which the foreign missionary service of the Church has won its amazing triumphs-that an outlet of service is the essential precursor of an inlet of grace-this principle we must proceed to put in operation lavishly in that part of the kingdom which is close at hand. Here again if we will but feel out [page 138] after God, we shall find that He is not far from every one of us.

There is good reason to believe that we vastly underestimate the readiness of all sorts of people everywhere for neighborly acquaintance, sociability, and cooperative effort. Following upon a period of almost universal shifting from place to place, and the radical change in the social environment of those who themselves have not shifted, there has come to be in this country almost without our noticing it an era of good feeling so far as ordinary human relations are concerned. This change is in the air and can be noticed everywhere. The situation offers a most inviting opportunity to the Church under the policy which I have outlined. A new stage in the actual consciousness of the brotherhood of man is ready to be attained, and its actual realization in terms of more thorough, more effectual, more spiritually productive social relation and organization is within reach.

Along with this kindling sense of fellowship among neighbors, and serving as a constant stimulus to it, is the growing conception of the marvel of life in every small neighborhood, of the variety and importance of the affairs of the neighborhood, of the needs of its public life, of the evils which are coming to public consciousness, of the significance of all the various ways in which the local existence organizes itself, of the need of strong collective action toward increasing productive resources, of the problems going with the protection and enhancement of health, the rearing of children, the improvement of conditions of work and conditions at home, of recreation for children and adolescents, of local politics and legislation involving actual local interests. Taking each of these phases of community life, and fairly analyzing the possibilities of imaginative and inventive social action, especially when the revealing influence of certain simple lines of practical effort has made itself felt, there is the strong beginning [page 139] of an endless programme of inspiriting and result-getting fellowship. The whole nascent meaning of twentieth-century democracy is thus opened up in the often apparently meaningless public life of every small community. The illusion, or delusion, which keeps all our local communities from coming into self-consciousness is that they must wait until some large issue arises. The gist of the matter is nearly always found in some apparently small matter which has come to be of concern to a considerable proportion of the people of the community. Under skillful leadership this common feeling can be turned into the channels of organized systematic action producing an actual minted and coined result. The tangible result, however, is only the symbol of what has really been gained, namely, the achieved momentum of a common understanding, a common cause, a common method, and a permanent common advantage.

Another danger is that the emphasis will be placed upon the need of a programme. Every community must make its own programme, and the making of the programme is itself one of the most important phases of community organization.

The first step toward a programme is a systematic study of local conditions and needs-of the make-up of the population as to nationality and religion; of their sanitary and housing conditions; of the various grades and degrees of work, of income, and of expenditure; of the recreational needs of the neighborhood, and its present supply of the forces for educational, philanthropic, and religious progress. The varied facts brought out by such an inquiry will quickly suggest practical first steps to be taken in meeting more obvious and generally agreed-upon needs. It may be that some phase of the programme of child and adolescent nurture and training, already outlined, will call for action. It may be that there are economic and industrial issues that are burning [page 140] questions in this particular community; and a body of thoughtful local men and women representing all interests could take a hand in advance of trouble and establish industrial peace and promote industrial prosperity rather than allow a situation to drift into industrial warfare. The relief of the poor, the raising of the standards of home life, the removal of sanitary abuses, stimulus to the public service of city or town in the interest of better health and morality, the improvement of transit facilities, coöperation with the teachers of the public schools, the promotion of municipal and legislative action designed to uplift and enlarge the life of the people as a whole, particularly as suggested by local study and experience-any and all of these may call for collective action. Such an organization ought to devote earnest and continuous attention to the recreative and associational life of the people of the community, particularly of the young people. If there are people living under narrow and crowded conditions, they must particularly be brought into a healthful recreative life. In all our communities there must be lavish, though not necessarily expensive, effort to provide in this way the essential alternative and preventive to vice, and the equally essential provocative to the spirited and high-toned living of life and the pressing on to better things. In every community there is need, as there is opportunity, for that same organization of helpful acquaintance, street by street and house by house, which is developed by the settlement worker, bringing about a varied network of mutual acquaintance and mutual interests that leads to the most substantial ways of organized social betterment and of that fellowship running out along all the interests of life which not only brings good things outwardly to the community, but imparts an inward grace to all concerned.

A particular word needs to be said about the great and growing problem in all our cities and large towns of those [page 141] who, living in lodgings, have no home ties, no neighborhood acquaintance. The lodging-house population, which is coming to represent a substantial fraction of the population in all our great cities, is made up chiefly of commercial employees, young men and young women engaged in the great stores and offices. Their wages are low, and their standard of living is very often much higher than they can sustain. Accordingly they postpone marriage or remain permanently unmarried, choosing to live in a respectable-appearing street near the excitements of the city rather than to make a home in a little cottage in the suburbs. The moral setting of their lives is suggested by remembering the sense of homesickness, of being deprived of some of the best props to character and purpose, which one has when one goes even for a short time to a strange place.

Under such circumstances it is of the highest importance that among such a population there should be a systematic organization of informal friendly and neighborly acquaintance to make good to these young people the sustaining power of human ties. In no other way can they be held in the ways of righteousness, not to speak of that finer and higher state of mind and heart which goes with religious experience. Under such conditions it is sometimes necessary that a church should, so to speak, organize a neighborhood under its own roof. But in general it is distinctly better for the local church to send its forces out into the life of the district however incomplete that life may be, joining with all others regardless of their religious affiliations, to surround every one-Protestant, Catholic, Jew, or Turk-with such bracing and rousing influences as will hold him true to his best motives and bring him with all others into happy and aspiring neighborly association.

This problem is one that above all confronts and challenges the downtown Protestant Church. The tenement [page 142] house population in American cities is almost wholly Catholic and Jewish. The lodging-house population is almost wholly Protestant. Moreover, it is not hostile to the Church, and is distinctly susceptible to the simple, direct human approach. The difficulty is that by a strange anomaly our churches seem to follow the theory that because the lodging-house people are not set in families, the Church must give them up; that is, unless all the preliminary work is done, the soil all completely prepared for the good seed, the Church has no mission to the souls of men!

The broadly Christian attack upon the possibilities of human fellowship in a local community involves study of, and so far as possible participation in, its special more or less restricted loyalties of race, religion, politics, industry, culture, and sociability. The different nationalities represented should be understood sympathetically in the light of their past traditions and of their best efforts to meet the problems of life under the special and often very perplexing conditions which confront them. Remember that no section of the human race can have stood all the shocks of time for ages without being in possession of highly valuable and admirable qualities; and remember what a long step it is to a permanent place in the heart of the stranger, if, especially when he is lonely and despised, he is taken into the circle of one’s friendly consideration.

To those who cherish forms of faith different from our own, we owe our spiritual confidence and appreciation. One great advantage of throwing the energy of the Church out into the life of the community is that in this way that catholicity of sympathy becomes possible for which religion in general and Christianity above all stands. Each church should train its people in the history of what is best in the life and thought of the others, and representatives of all should then enter in a spirit of fine emulation into social service [page 143]. Proselytism, or anything that can fairly be construed as proselytism, accomplishes no good results which from any point of view can be compared with its evil effects in reviving religious animosity and preventing the working unity of all people of good will. This is not, however, to deny the right and even the duty of any church to offer the ministrations of religion to people of different religious antecedents who are being neglected by the church in which they were born.

The loyalties that go with industrial and commercial pursuits are to-day not only becoming more and more intense, but are constantly more capable of rendering profound service in the forward movement for the social betterment of the community. One of the marked facts of the times is that business men everywhere, whose motto formerly was “Avoid entangling alliances,” are to-day associating themselves together not only to promote their common business interests, but for united effort toward the advancement of the welfare of their city or town. It is a happy thing for the Church that many of the men engaged in promoting this tendency are among its active laymen; and there should be no question in the, minds of these men but that they not only have the approval and support of the Church, but that they are in a real sense the representatives of the Church in their efforts to humanize and socialize the large operations of business.

Not so often is the Church-at least in its Protestant branches-represented by men active in the counsels of labor organizations; but it should be a definite part of its programme to be in working relations with them for the sake of joint action so far as such action may be possible. In some cases, representatives of the Church are accredited visitors to central labor unions. Such relations may be made to serve a valuable purpose through establishing acquaintance [page 144] across the line that separates employer and employee, and even preventing strikes through the comparative ease with which negotiations may be established and conducted.

The higher motive in local politics is greatly needed for the moral welfare of all our communities, and it can only come into being through the entrance into local politics of devoted and enlightened men. The Church should definitely urge its laymen to carry their best purposes into local political service. The aim here is not only to lay down higher standards of honesty, but to lift and broaden political ends until they shall actually represent the human needs of the people as to health, recreation, and realistic forms of education. The creating of a local political platform which will thus provide for the collective interests of all the people will give them a new pride in citizenship and a new insight into the meaning of democratic government as being the great form of cooperative action on the part of all the people for the good of all. It is this kind of programme that will make town and city government not merely negatively honest, but actively, constructively, enterprisingly good.

The women’s clubs are fast throwing themselves into the momentum of social service; and even the men’s secret orders are not impenetrable to the new and broader call of brotherhood. When the national president of the Order of Elks can send out to every one of the four hundred thousand members of that order a statement explaining the Big Brother movement, and urging the members of the order to become Big Brothers to the boys in their local communities, one realizes how great a force for social betterment such organizations may perhaps become.

There are two vital points in policy to be observed in this whole matter of infusing the dynamic of Christian living and Christian hope into the organized social life most nearly about us. One is that we must be fully satisfied with the fact [page 145] that the leaven is permeating and doing its work. We must avail ourselves of all existing groups, and be prepared to let all the honor and glory be theirs provided the Kingdom of God be advanced. The Church which seeks to label its service, or attach to itself the outward results of its work, or do anything other than freely cast its bread upon the waters, will by just so much fail of its true reward.

The other point is that we must be possibilists; that is, on the one hand, do the possible thing, and, on the other, exhaust its possibilities. We must strike in where the situation allows; we must be content with crude beginnings. We must wait our chance, and then we must strike hard; we must work unstintedly and cumulatively when the chance comes.

Two steps are necessary in our spiritual enlightenment in order that all the progressive service may become a stirring reality. One is that our eyes should be opened to see the Kingdom of God lying everywhere about, in the infinitely precious lives of all of our fellow-men immediately about us-the unsurpassed sacredness of all that makes up human life-the bearing of every human relation upon the flowering-out of soul and spirit. And, secondly, we need to understand that the price of the consecrated life is to come with our gift-not some one’s else-and lay that particular definite gift upon the altar.

Such a thoroughgoing local programme as has been outlined leads out into problems which, of course, cannot be solved locally. But the development of such local association makes it easy to establish common cause with adjoining communities one after another; thus, in an organic way, projecting local public issues into the wider arena of the city and the State. In many of our cities such linking together of local betterment organizations is going on, that there begins to be in the city administration and in State legislation a new and more human attitude because the rank [page 146] and file of the people are learning to form themselves together for the expression of their actual collective needs and desires. This force is felt even by the National Government. For forty years there was at Washington an agitation in favor of pure food. It is only in these later years, with the increase of the public power of expression coming out of our homes and out of those social circles in which home affairs are an immediate source of interest, that National pure food legislation has actually been secured.

This suggests that these varied possibilities of local service provide a most explicit and inviting opportunity for the work of women. Beginning with the experience that goes with the varied life of the home, following out by the way of that cultivation of neighborliness which has always been one of the most definite and most important of the duties of women, they can develop kinds and degrees of local public service which can compare favorably with anything that can be done to build up the State.

All these interests should be caught up in the inner organized life of the individual local church, for the sake not only of securing their best ethical gains to the community but of reinforcing their value as a means of personal spiritual growth to those whom the church sends out into the community’s service. Every church should have a guild analogous in present-day terms to the original class-meetings of the Wesleys, through which members of the church actively engaged in social work could be kept continuously alert to the highest motives, the broadest bearings, the noblest ends of what they have in hand. The pastor should be the director of this guild, not as being absorbed himself in secular activities but as one who must be, in his immediate world, the skilled interpreter and inspiriting prophet to his people in all that will, in and through them, advance the Kingdom of God.

How to cite this piece: Woods, R. A. (1912). ‘The recovery of the parish. An address before the faculty and students of Andover Theological Seminary’, in R. A. Woods (1923) The Neighborhood in Nation-Building. The running comment of thirty years at South End House, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. Available in the informal education archives: [Retrieved: insert date].

This piece has been reproduced here on the understanding that it is not subject to any copyright restrictions, and that it is, and will remain, in the public domain. First placed in the archives: June 2003.