A rich woman who took the Magnificat seriously

Vida Dutton Scudder, an early 20th-century radical, points Christians to solidarity and martyrdom.

After I moved to Dallas in 2021, I joined a church community that is both more progressive and wealthier than any other I’ve been a part of. I’d been wrestling with the question of what it means for Christians to put our money where our mouths are when we say we worship a God who sides with the poor. My struggle only intensified in a congregation that both welcomes the question and inhabits a city riven by wealth disparities.

While researching my book on the literary Christian left, I discovered a searching and faithful guide to these issues: Vida Dutton Scudder. A child of missionaries with deep family connections to Boston’s upper classes and their deep pockets, Scudder soon turned class traitor. She was radicalized as a graduate student at Oxford in the 1880s, where she heard some of the final public lectures of the English social critic John Ruskin. While in England, she worked for the Salvation Army, and when she returned to the States, she helped to start the settlement house movement, which strove to alleviate poverty by bringing the middle classes into social proximity with the poor. She was also a founder of the Church of the Carpenter in Boston, a Christian socialist congregation intended to unite laborers with the educated classes in worship. She recalled that the people there “sang with special zeal the Magnificat . . . and feasted on . . . the hope of an imminent revolution.”

This sort of thing isn’t easy. The Church of the Carpenter’s experiment in uniting middle class and poor under one church roof lasted only a few months. But the congregation served as a launchpad for Scudder’s lifelong task of harmonizing class struggle with Christian love.