Hamilton’s rich historic legacy provides much of the 21st-century College’s strength and vision. It also comprises a wealth of fascinating stories that illuminate the College’s changing place in the region, the nation and the world. “The Hill in History” shares some of those stories in a regular column.
Frederic Hastings Smyth, Class of 1909, may seem an unlikely revolutionary. Born in Clinton in 1888, the scion of a wealthy family of local industrialists and Hamiltonians, he dabbled in a dizzying range of personal and professional interests, from the military to mysticism. He explored Europe and embraced science only to return to the Hill as an eccentric cleric, winning adherents but making important enemies. Departing for more hospitable territory, he ultimately forged a religious order that married Catholicism and Marxism — one whose delicate balance of radical politics and theology earned the FBI’s attention but ultimately died with Smyth himself.
It may nevertheless be said that, as a son of Hamilton College, Smyth earned his place among the cadre of brave and committed, if sometimes misunderstood, alumni who struggled creatively with faith and justice in their time.
The Smyth family owned the Clinton Metallic Paint Company, which derived pigments from the abundance of locally extracted hematite ore. In this undertaking, the Smyths were initially joined by alumni William MacLaren Bristol (Class of 1882) and John Ripley Myers (Class of 1887) until they withdrew to found the Clinton Pharmaceutical (later Bristol-Myers) Company.
A sensitive and brilliant member of Sigma Phi who earned election to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, Smyth was quite musical; at the invitation of classmate Alexander Woollcott, he became a charter member of the Charlatans. On graduating, he won a Root Fellowship to study at the University of Berlin. But though respected by the Hamilton faculty for his intellectual attainments, Smyth was often tweaked by collegemates for his social pretensions and overly dramatic sensibilities. He took his wealth and success for granted and remained, among friends and family, a peculiar, somewhat isolated personality.
After earning M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in inorganic chemistry at MIT, where he subsequently taught, Smyth served in the U.S. Army for the Chemical Warfare Service during World War I, rising to the rank of captain. (He designed the CWS logo which, in a slightly stylized form, is still in use today by the Army Chemical Corps.) But his commitment to bench science flagged after the war, and Smyth drifted. When his mother died in 1919, he gained controlling interest in the Clinton Metallic Paint Company, and with it a measure of financial freedom. Thoughts of the Episcopal priesthood, which had begun to distract him from his laboratory work, took shape when he enrolled at the General Theological Seminary in New York.
In 1925, however, Smyth abandoned his studies, sold his stake in the paint company and embarked on a dilettantish sojourn in Europe. His trip to a continent still in postwar turmoil proved formative. Smyth took up residence in Rome where, in religion, he imbibed Roman Catholicism — more as a connoisseur than a believer — and, in politics, encountered fascist and communist ideologies. He learned Italian well and traveled in aristocratic circles. Translating for a Washington newspaper reporter, Smyth interviewed Mussolini, who complimented him on his fluency. It was, for a time, the happy if aimless life of an expatriate aesthete.
Quixotically, however, he decided to accept a laboratory appointment with a prominent London scientist, under whose encouragement Smyth began to think philosophically about the potential integration of scientific and religious knowledge. He also drank deeply of the resurgent Anglo-Catholic movement in England. Recovering his faith, Smyth returned to Italy — this time to Venice — where he made contact with Ezra Pound, Class of 1905. Smyth enrolled again in theological college, making frequent visits to London to consult with T.S. Eliot, to whom Pound had furnished a letter of introduction. In 1932, Smyth was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England.
Yet as so often before — in Clinton, Washington and Rome — Smyth soon felt himself out of sorts in England. His Central New York accent was a source of amusement to his new Oxbridge companions. But urban parish work in Chichester, in southeast England, enflamed him spiritually and politically as he witnessed poverty and human need on an arresting scale. In this milieu, he met and was mentored by leaders of the Christian Socialist movement while he monitored the ominous and unsteady political situation in Europe.
At length, fleeing growing uncertainty on the continent, and facing a diminished exchequer, Smyth returned to Clinton in September 1933 to establish the Oratory of St. Mary and St. Michael, a chapel founded on Anglo-Catholic liturgical practice, in rented rooms near the Hill. The endeavor was financed by his former classmate, Robert “Bobo” Rudd, by then a professor; two sympathetic College trustees; and Edith Read Fancher, heir to a New York City fortune and wife of Paul Fancher, a Hamilton professor of English and director of the College Choir. The group soon retained the distinguished ecclesiastical architect Ralph Adams Cram to design a permanent Anglo-Catholic chapel of Gothic design on the Fancher property abutting the Hamilton campus.
At first Smyth was embraced by College authorities, but trouble soon arose. At the very moment when the College was attempting to separate from its historical Presbyterian affiliation, there appeared on the Hill an alumnus and native son swanning about in cassock and biretta, conducting eccentric religious services for undergraduates, and somehow connected to the suspiciously elaborate religious edifice rising in full view of impressionable collegiate youth. The College’s concern with Smyth, initially grounded in discomfort with his extreme religious practices, soon grew to include his radical politics.
When the alarmed chairman of the Board of Trustees, Elihu Root, Class of 1864, ordered that a fence be built to isolate the chapel from the College, Smyth’s backers lost their nerve. Cram was asked to redesign the chapel as a bungalow. When Professor Fancher deeded the property to the College on his retirement in 1942, the Tudor cottage was named the Fancher Guest House and served for years as a short-term residence for visitors and faculty. It was demolished in 2002 in preparation for the building of the Taylor Science Center.
Undaunted, Smyth quietly continued to conduct services in rented rooms and, reportedly, in Fancher House itself. His recondite theological doctrine, which he branded “metacosmesis,” combined traditional Anglican Incarnationalism (the idea that the divine is present in all humanity, just as Jesus took human form) with the Marxian dialectical materialism he had absorbed while abroad. Smyth held that Christianity must be seen as fundamentally revolutionary, and, like so many revolutionaries, Smyth mounted a concerted attack on the social class from which he sprang. Sermonizing in London in 1932, he had declared:
“Your gratitude is incomplete and unworthy of God to whom you offer it, if you are content to tolerate conditions which leave other millions unemployed and dependent upon charity…. The thankful Christian cannot take poverty and unemployment as inevitable matters of course. On the contrary, he will be anxious to transform, yes, even revolutionize the world, so that God’s bounty may flow freely and equitably to all our blessed Lord’s brethren here on earth.”
In the fall of 1936, frustrated by what he foresaw as continuing opposition to his oratory project, Smyth finally decamped for Cambridge, Mass. He took with him two Hamilton protégés from the Class of 1936, David R. Cochran (the future Episcopal Bishop of Alaska) and William J. Chase. There he re-established the oratory, earning “prayers for the success of your venture” from T.S. Eliot. Going further, Smyth used the oratory as the launching pad for founding the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth, an obscure and short-lived religious order animated by the principles of Christian Marxism and modeled on the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. He styled himself as Father Superior.
For nearly 25 years off the Hill until his death, Smyth lectured, wrote books and struggled to advance his order in the teeth of the deeply engrained anti-communism of mid–20th-century America. Always under suspicion for his political activities, Smyth was finally labeled “more odd than dangerous” by the FBI, whose surveillance he shrugged off.
Ultimately, Smyth was a tangle of incompatibilities: among Clintonians an aloof patrician; among Hamiltonians a devotee of the arts; among the English a Mohawk Valley hayseed; among Protestants a Catholic; among Catholics a Marxist; among Marxists a Christian; and among scientists a mystical interpreter of reality. At one point he was left the sole member of his own order.
He died in 1960 in Gloucester, Mass., shy of age 72. After a long stay in Canada in the care of the order he had founded, Smyth’s ashes were repatriated in 1981 to the family plot in Clinton, closing the circle of an earnest and adventurous wanderer who reaped scant yield from his life’s planting. He left no family or spiritual heirs. Smyth, his writings and his order are today largely forgotten.