William Montgomery Brown was born September 4, 1855 near Orrville, Wayne County, Ohio. He had a younger sister, Mary Jane, and a younger brother, James. His father was a poor tenant farmer who moved the family to Michigan in 1858, then enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. In Tennessee, he was sent home to Michigan to recuperate from a sickness. He died on August 1, 1862. At the time, young Willy was 7. Mrs. Brown applied for a widow’s pension but was turned down. Since she had no way to support her young family, she moved back to Ohio to be near relatives. Mrs. Brown “bound out” her oldest son to a German-speaking neighbor, who was a “Dunkard,” a religious sect similar to today’s Amish.
The father was a disciplinarian who did not allow Willy to do anything but work, learn to read or write, or play with the other children. He was forced to sleep in the barn with the livestock that he took care of.
When Willy was 15, the county stepped in and removed him from the Dunkard farm. He was then placed with a kind farmer named Jacob Gardner. They were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church and their piety greatly influenced the young Willy Brown. During the time he stayed with the Gardner family, Willy contracted typhoid fever and became seriously ill. Years later Brown recalled making a bargain with God to devote his life to the ministry if his life would be spared. Willy’s health improved and he saved enough money his foster parents paid him to leave Ohio just after his 21st birthday. He had a keen desire to get an education.
The Quest for an Education
In 1876, now six-foot tall Bill Brown traveled to Omaha, Nebraska and got a job driving a carriage for a Judge. Judge Briggs had sympathy for Brown’s hope to get an education, and arranged for him to enter public school in the 4th grade. He was the object of his teacher’s admiration as he quickly progressed through the grades and graduated in only a few years.
Bill then returned to Ohio and told Jacob Gardner he wanted to enter the ministry. He went to work for James Averell who ran a tannery. Averell sent him to Cleveland in 1819 with a load of leather goods to sell along with orders to buy land. In 1833, Averell sold his Cleveland general store and bought land along the Cuyahoga River at five cents an acre. As Cleveland grew around his farm, his land holdings became quite valuable. His wife, Irene ran a boarding school for young ladies. One of the students was The Scranton’s had six children, but all died except for Mary Jane Scranton who was born on October 10, 1832. In 1858, the elder Mrs. Scranton underwent an operation and died on March 15.” Her husband died three weeks later on April 9th from a stroke. He died without a will and had signed many notes borrowing money from William Averell, the son of his first boss, and others. In the meantime, Mary Jane married William Bradford, who died at a relatively young age.
Brown traveled to Cleveland to meet with Mrs. Bradford who agreed to underwrite his education so long as he would enter the Episcopal Seminary, Bexley Hall at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Brown began his preparation for seminary by studying under tutors hired by Mrs. Bradford. She sent him to Seabury Divinity School in Minnesota from 1879-1880 so he could prepare for the seminary course. He was one of thirteen seminary students. Brown gained the reputation of being a scholar. He finished his studies in 1883, but because he did not take all of his courses at Kenyon, he never received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Bexley.
Marriage and a Move to Galion
Just when Brown met the daughter of his benefactress, Mary Scranton Bradford, is unknown. Mrs. Bradford may have had her eye on Brown all along as a suitable husband for her adopted niece, Ella. Brown and Ella may have met as early as 1879. Brown soon fell in love with Ella and proposed marriage, possibly on Christmas Day 1882. William was ordained a deacon at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland in 1883. He was assigned to Grace Parish in Galion, Ohio.
Mrs. Bradford had decided to build a home for the young couple as a wedding gift. She bought the quarter block on which Galion’s Grace Episcopal Church stood and began work on Brownella Cottage –a name created from both their names. A brick building that had been used as Galion’s Catholic Church was preserved on the site to serve as William’s study. Brownella Cottage was completed in 1887. Around 1900, Mrs. Bradford purchased the comer lot to the east of Brownella and had Grace Church moved.
During the first years of their marriage, Rev. Brown was in demand as a speaker. He spent much time traveling around Ohio starting new churches. In 1891, Rev. Brown was appointed Archdeacon for Ohio, and served until 1897. Brown also began writing. His first book, “The Church for Americans” was published in 1895. As Archdeacon, Brown traveled over 18,000 miles speaking and raising money for the church.
Bishop of Arkansas
In 1897 Brown was was elected Bishop of Arkansas and sent to Little Rock. He reorganized the Diocese and continued to raise money for new churches. It was during this time Brown began the process to start a separate church for blacks in Arkansas. This process led him to write a very controversial book “The Crucial Race Question” in 1907. Brown wanted the General Conference of the Episcopal Church to adopt his plan to establish the separate church for blacks. He was also drawing criticism from church hierarchy for spending 5 months each year from June thru October at his beloved Brownella Cottage in Galion. He wrote a third book in 1910 called “The Level Plan for Church Union” obsessed with the idea of a “united” church of all denominations under the leadership of the Episcopal Church. His views led to isolation and loss of Church support. As a result, his national reputation and his health suffered.
He left Arkansas in 1911, obsessed with the idea that he held the key to world salvation. He and Ella came back to Galion where he had a nervous breakdown. He was granted a year’s leave of absence from his duties in Arkansas. During his recuperation, the Bishop began reading the works of Karl Marx and Charles Darwin. He resigned his position as Bishop in April of 1912 with the understanding that he could keep his seat in the House of Bishops.
A Startling Conversion and Trouble with the Episcopal Church
From 1912 to 1920 Brown underwent a startling conversion process. His acceptance of Marxism and Socialism led to his denial of the mystical quality of the Eucharist and Apostolic Succession. During these years the Brown’s had to rely on the generosity of Mrs. Bradford who gave them an allowance of $300 per month, slightly less than a year’s income for the average working man. Brown’s acceptance of socialism and Marxism led him to communism. It was during this time that the prominent Socialist Eugene Debs visited often to ask him for money.
Ella inherited her mother’s entire estate when she died in 1918. Among the assets was a half interest in considerable land holdings in downtown Cleveland. When faced with the question as to why he and Ella did not give away their wealth, the Bishop responded by saying he was afraid the money would just go to someone not interested in the working class. The Bishop wanted to use the money to overthrow the economic system that made it possible for him to do nothing and have everything – and also for those who do everything and have nothing.
In 1920, the Bishop began work on a new book that would eventually get him into trouble with the Episcopal Church and cause him to become a nationally known celebrity. It was called “Communism and Christianism”. He could not find a publisher to print the book so he used Ella’s money to form the Bradford-Brown Educational Company, Inc. In this book, Brown criticized literal Christianity. He accepted “Brother Jesus,” not as a real person but as an exponent of ethical ideas. He suggested that Christianity derived from sun worship.
He eventually printed 13 editions of this book. Dealing with the question as to why he continued to be a professing Christian, Brown answered that he thought no one really believed that God created the heavens and the earth in 6 days. He argued that Christian doctrines were good for the world just as Uncle Sam and Santa Claus were a symbol of all that is good for the world, too.
When the General Conference met in 1922, one of the bishops presented a petition to indict Bishop Brown for heresy. Many of the bishops privately thought Bishop Brown was crazy. The House of Bishops tried several times to get Bishop Brown to publicly admit that he was wrong. Finally in 1924, a trial was scheduled to be held in Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, the very church where the Bishop was baptized, ordained, and married. The trial attracted world-wide attention as on one had been convicted of heresy since the Middle Ages.
In the end, Bishop Brown was convicted. A Court of Review upheld the conviction, and in 1925, Bishop Brown was deposed.
Bishop Brown refused to accept the sentence and the authority of the court. He continued to use the title of Bishop and spent his remaining years cranking out more books and speaking.
He and Ella continued traveling and returning to Brownella Cottage. They received a large windfall when the Terminal Tower building was built in downtown Cleveland on land that Mrs. Brown inherited from her mother, but Ella held the purse strings tightly. During the Depression, the Bishop would purchase truckloads of food for the poor. Many schoolchildren fondly remembered the kindly old Bishop standing by his fence passing out nickels.
Mrs. Brown died in 1935 and the Bishop spent his remaining years living extravagantly. He bought a Packard automobile and frequented Cleveland where he stayed in the most expensive hotels. The Bishop also kept up a voluminous correspondence with a number of people around the country on his views of communism and socialism. He hosted the head of the communist party in America, Earl Browder on several occasions.
As he grew older, the Bishop suffered from diabetes. His eyesight began to fail him, so he hired high school students to read to him. During his final two years, the Bishop took an interest in aviation. He bought an airplane and paid for flying lessons for the brother of his secretary. They would fly down to Columbus to visit his secretary, Miriam, or to bring her home for the weekend. For the remainder of his life, the Bishop attended church services in the little church across the street from his home where his ministry had begun. His health took a turn for the worse in the fall of 1937, and he passed away on Sunday, October 31st at his beloved Brownella Cottage.