Beginning in the nineteenth century, the English-speaking world saw the rebirth of a strange type of clergyman: the priest-scholar interested in the otherworldly. While men of the cloth have long been part of the Christian intelligentsia (as have many scientists, inventors, and philosophers), with the nineteenth and twentieth century decline in church attendance and the rise of a techno-scientific elite, a small group of occult-minded priests and pastors began reviving the medieval and early Modern tradition of the holy man as expert demonologist. Along the way, these men, most of whom proudly upheld the stereotype of the eccentric English gentleman, helped to lend a certain level of respectability to the study of monsters and murderers.
Of course, given that we are talking about the post-Enlightenment world, the difference between men like the Anglican priest-scholar Sabine Baring-Gould (born 1834), an antiquarian, hagiographer, and scholar, and Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, the sixteenth-century German priests who composed the anti-witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum, is fairly large. While the latter were steadfast believers in the existence of witches and witchcraft, the Reverend Baring-Gould, best known as the composer of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” studied such things as werewolves and revenants as a rationalist scholar interested in the origins of myth and folklore.
Baring-Gould’s interest in the darker strains of European superstition would have marked him as a person-of-suspicion during the witchcraft trials that erupted throughout Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. If not for his belief that lycanthropy was the result of a mental disorder, Baring-Gould may have faced the Inquisition owing to his Protestant faith alone.
When the prolific Baring-Gould died in 1924, the spirit of his work was picked up by another unusual English clergyman. Born Augustus Montague Summers in Bristol, Montague Summers initially trained as an Anglican priest and was ordained as a deacon. However, rumors abounded that Summers had a less than passing interest in Satanism. More shocking still, Summers was charged with molestation, but was acquitted. These two rumors prevented Summers from advancing in the Anglican Church and followed him throughout his life. Summers devoted one of his volumes of poetry to Antonius, the young male lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian, which continues to be used as evidence of Summers’s leanings towards pederasty. Partly owing to these vocational roadblocks, Summers converted to Catholicism in 1909 and began claiming that he was an ordained Catholic priest. Known for wearing a simple black cassock and a biretta at all times, the eccentric Summers began publishing books like The Vampire: His Kith and Kin and The Geography of Witchcraft in the 1920s.
Whereas Baring-Gould brought heavy skepticism to his subject, Summers’s work openly displays his belief in the existence of vampires, werewolves, and witches. German sociologist Max Weber would argue that this difference is due to the differences between Protestant and Catholic doctrine. More specifically, Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues that Protestantism, with its heavy emphasis on rationalism and economic thrift, creates a type of mentality, or “spirit” that creates an inquisitive impulse that is not easily satiated by traditional explanations. Catholics, on the other hand, “prefer to sleep undisturbed” and prefer “a life of the greatest possible security, even with small income, to a life of risk and excitement…” Within Weber’s prism, Baring-Gould’s approach to the supernatural is thoroughly Protestant because it seeks to understand historical superstition from a rationalist, well-researched position. Conversely, according to Weber, Summers’s reaffirmation of European superstition is very Catholic because it merely accepts the dogma of the medieval church as factual.
Of course, this Weberian reading of Barine-Gould and Summers fails upon closer scrutiny. After all, Weber linked heavy rationalism with Calvinists, not the quasi-Catholic Anglicans. Still, the stereotype of the even-minded Protestant and the pearl-clutching Catholic persisted well into the twentieth century. Interestingly, this stereotype was somewhat subverted by two other occult-minded clergymen, both of whom discussed the supernatural via fiction. One was British, the other American; one was a Catholic convert, the other an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. Most importantly, one achieved fame and respect during his lifetime, while the other was relegated to the sleazy pulp markets. Both men, Monsignor Ronald Knox and Reverend Henry S. Whitehead, helped further extend the phenomenon of the strange clergyman as something delightfully native to the Anglosphere.
Henry St. Clair Whitehead began his life in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on March 5, 1882. From here, he followed the time-worn WASP trajectory of Harvard (where he graduated alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1904), travel, and a prestigious job as a newspaper editor in Port Chester, New York. Instead of entering into politics, Whitehead decided to attend Berkeley Divinity School in Middletown, Connecticut in order to become an Episcopal priest. After becoming a deacon in 1912, Whitehead was posted to the Danish West Indies (today’s U.S. Virgin Islands) between the years 1921 and 1929. Even before Whitehead returned to the States and settled in Dunedin, Florida, he had already made a name for himself as a short story writer with a taste for the fantastique. Whitehead tapped into his Caribbean surroundings and began writing about something that was sure to both scare and tantalize the readers of the pulp magazine Weird Tales: voodoo.
Whitehead’s best tales take place in the Virgin Islands and feature the narrator and protagonist Gerald Canevin, a fellow writer and Whitehead’s alter ego. The supernatural pervades Whitehead’s version of the West Indies, with voodoo rituals and curses as common as rainclouds or local legends about lost pirate treasure. “Passing of a God,” widely considered Whitehead’s finest story, treats Haitian voodoo as a topic of intellectual interest, especially since the subject had been covered in 1929 by the once enormously popular travel writer William Seabrook in The Magical Island (which would provide the source material for the 1932 horror film White Zombie). Whitehead was a serious student of Haitian folklore and did know quite a bit about the practice of voodoo in the West Indies. It’s unknown whether or not Whitehead seriously believed in black magic, but he certainly wrote as if the topic was within the realm of possibility.
“Passing of a God” and Whitehead’s other macabre tales are smart, well-crafted odes to conventional, if not exotic, horror. Despite his friendship with fellow Weird Tales regular H.P. Lovecraft, Whitehead did not write about cosmic monsters or the inability of humanity to comprehend the contents of the universe, even though the two collaborated on the short story “The Trap.” Whitehead’s contributions to Weird Tales were frequently out-of-step with the magazine’s usual content. This may be why Whitehead is so little-known today. The only whisper of his legacy in popular culture remains Lucio Fulci’s 1979 film Zombi 2, a zombie film about a voodoo curse on the fictional island of Matool (based on Saint Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands).
While Whitehead lived a dual existence as a church rector and producer of uncanny and bizarre horror stories, Ronald Knox was busy codifying detective fiction, a close cousin of horror fiction, in Great Britain. Inspired by his religious training and his desire to make detective fiction more respectable, Knox created a set of ten commandments for the Detection Club, a formal group of British mystery writers of the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy S. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton. The commandments are as follows:
1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow;
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course;
3. No more than one secret room or passage is allowable. I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in a kind of house where such devices might be expected;
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end;
5. No Chinaman must figure into the story;
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right;
7. The detective must not, himself, commit the crime;
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader;
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but only very slightly, below that of the average reader;
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Knox, an Anglican priest at Oxford before his conversion to Catholicism in 1917, particularly wanted to rid British detective fiction of the influence of Sax Rohmer, whose popular character Doctor Fu-Manchu (the “Chinaman” of rule number five) blurred the lines between pulpy, overly sensationalist speculative fiction and detective fiction. For Knox and the other members of the Detection Club, mystery stories were first and foremost logical puzzles posed to the reader. Rationality and deductive reasoning were the meat of the genre, not trapdoors, happenstance, and the supernatural.
As with most commandments, Knox’s stipulations were frequently broken. Even when British mystery writers of the 1930s tried to conform to Knox’s dictates, they could not fully escape their chosen genre’s affinity with horror fiction. After all, death is the ultimate mystery, so anything dealing with death is bound to be a little spooky. Knox’s own detective novels were no different, with 1927’s The Three Taps, featuring the insurance investigator Miles Bredon, being the most outré.
Try as he might, Knox was in many ways a relative not only of Whitehead, but also Baring-Gould and, to a lesser extent, Summers. These four men were not only clergymen who all shared an interest in the Stygian aspects of life, but they were all dedicated writers who crafted books and short stories that dealt more with the secular world than the cloistered one. Some, like the Catholic Knox and the Anglican Baring-Gould, looked to scientific rationality when it came to the topic of human darkness. The Episcopalian Whitehead and the Catholic Summers did the opposite, writing about superstitions as if they were universal facts.
Taken together, these four men problematize the stereotypical dichotomy of the reasonable and analytic Protestant versus the credulous Catholic, which in turn may say something about how Christianity reacted to the growth of secularism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the age when popular occultism reached its peak in North America and Europe thanks to seances, spiritualism, and certain groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (which included members like Aleister Crowley and W.B. Yeats), these clergymen carved out space of Christianity among the darker strands of popular culture. Interestingly, they came not to proselytize, but to remind readers that this world is full of magic, some of which is conducted in the shadows.