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The Newman of New England

by James Likoudis


This article by James Likoudis provides a brief account of the life and works of James Kent Stone (1840-1921), one of the greatest converts of the nineteenth-century.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


60 – 62

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, May 2009

One of the greatest nineteenth-century converts to the Church was James Kent Stone, who has been rightly called the "American Newman." The scion of a distinguished Boston family that included many Episcopalian and Presbyterian clerics and such luminaries as his grandfather, Chancellor Kent, the famous author of Commentaries on American law, and his father, Dr. John F. Stone, rector of St. Paul's Church in Boston and later professor of theology and dean of the faculty at the Episcopal Theological School at Cambridge. A brilliant student, James Kent Stone entered Harvard University in 1855 at the age of sixteen and also studied at the University of Gottingen in Germany before graduating from Harvard in 1861.

With the advent of the Civil War, James Kent Stone joined the Army as a private and quickly advanced to lieutenant, seeing action in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, Antietam, in which some 22,000 men were killed. Upon leaving military service, he received a Master of Arts and then a doctorate in theology from Harvard. Ordained a deacon and then priest in the Episcopal Church, he served as a professor of Latin at Kenyon College in Ohio, married Cornelia Fay in 1863, and became the happy father of two daughters. Dr. Stone became the president of Kenyon College in 1867 (the youngest college president of the period) and soon after, acknowledged as a brilliant scholar and speaker, accepted the position of president of Hobart College in Geneva, New York. To his great sorrow Cornelia died in 1869 after giving birth to their third child, Frances. His conversion to the Catholic Church would occur soon afterwards.

It became evident that his theological studies had been affected by the Oxford Tractarian movement in England, which attempted to prove that the Church of England and its Protestant Episcopal offshoot had retained the features of primitive Christianity which a later "Romanism" had corrupted. His developing "High Church" views encountered resistance in the super-Protestant "Low Church" atmosphere of Kenyon College and led to his resignation, whereupon he was offered the presidency of Hobart, which was High Church Anglican in ethos. In letters to his mother (September 26 and October 6. 1869) he wrote:

I became convinced that the Catholic Church in communion with the Successor of St. Peter was the true Church of our Blessed Savior. It came upon me all of a sudden. One week I had not the slightest suspicion that I should ever become a Roman Catholic, and the next (I think the time was as short, or, at any rate, not much longer) I saw it as plain as day. I cannot explain it, and do not attempt to explain it but consider it simply as the work of divine grace. It was last December, when I was in Geneva and when Cornelia was apparently getting a little better. I was not in any way under Catholic influence; the subject was not brought in any way to my direct notice. I can only call it God's work . . . I only wrote to you now because I knew you would hear the story from others. What could I do? I am as sure that the Roman Catholic Church is the true Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ as I am that there is a God in heaven or that I have a soul to be saved. I see it as plainly as I see the sun above me. You know the history of my youth well enough to know that I was sincere and devout and that I truly loved my Lord and Savior. The only desire I ever had for myself as to be his minister. And now, it is love for him alone which has drawn me into his Church. He has called me — and what can I do'? Can I refuse to go? Nay, I have given up everything for His sake — everything — what is there which I have not given up? I would go through it all a thousand times over, though I should die a thousand times from sheer distress, rather than refuse to obey the Divine Voice which calls me. I would die tomorrow, joyfully, by the most ignominious and painful of deaths, rather than betray for a single instant the blessed faith which is dearer to me than life and stronger than the fear of death.

Dr. Stone had read the touching appeal of Blessed Pius IX to "All Protestants and non-Catholic Christians" for their return to Catholic unity, but he was little affected. To his mind, he had already dealt with the "Roman question," and felt only pity for its author. In the words of biographer Katherine Burton in her book No Shadow of Turning (Longmans, Green and Company, N.Y., 1944), "The very suggestion that Romanism might after all be identical with true Christianity was preposterous to him. Surely it was the papacy which had been the great apostate, the mystery of iniquity, the masterpiece of Satan, which had made its most successful attack upon the Church of God by entering and corrupting it. The rise of the papal authority was a matter of plain history; he had read of it himself over and over, and it was his conviction that the simple faith of early days was now scarcely recognizable under the accumulated error of centuries" (p. 63). He had defended the Anglican Reformation "with all his soul." Yet one night in a mysterious experience the terrible thought came to him, "What if the old Roman Church should be right after all?" Upon the death of his beloved wife and torn by both personal and doctrinal anguish, he determined to study in depth the nature of the Church Christ had established. The resolution of all troubling questions would receive final clarification after his entrance into the Church in his completion of a masterpiece of apologetics, An Invitation Heeded. This impressive volume would go into seventeen printings and prove invaluable to many other seekers of the true Church. Dismissed by one of his Protestant detractors as the "silliest trash ever put forth," An Invitation Heeded is perhaps the most powerful apologia for the Catholic faith written by an American convert from Anglicanism, the spirit, style and logical acumen of which have been rightly compared to that of the incomparable John Henry Newman. James Kent Stone's defense and exposition of the Roman primacy of universal jurisdiction in the Church remains of special interest today as ecumenical studies (such as that occurring with the Catholic/Orthodox dialogue recently concluded at Ravenna, October 8-14, 2007) have begun to focus on the relationship between primacy and collegiality in the hierarchical structure of the Church.

In his survey of the history of the Church concerning the papacy, the "American Newman" was to conclude:

The primacy of the See of Peter is the most prominent fact in the history of Christianity. And it is a fact which is inseparably associated with a distinct prophecy. Moreover, the primacy is not only professedly grounded upon the prophecy in question, but is actually so grounded. I mean that the words of Christ [in the famous Petrine texts of Scripture] are so substantially the foundation of the papal power that the latter could never have existed without the former. No intelligent student will think of denying this. Indeed, without looking into the past at all, it is perfectly plain that, if it were not for the divine sentences so often quoted, the pontifical claims would be wholly without sanction, and the papacy would fall to pieces in an hour . . . Thou art a Rock; and upon this Rock I will build My Church; and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. Stupendous prophecy! Where among all the words of God shall its mate be found?

An Invitation Heeded was written in the interval between the author's being received into the Catholic Church on December 8, 1869 and his ordination as a priest. Space does not permit giving a fuller account here of his truly remarkable life. James Kent Stone would arrange for the care and education of his daughters as he became a Paulist priest, and then a famous and much admired Passionist missionary known as Father Fidelis of the Cross, who helped establish Passionist houses and churches in America and South America (Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Cuba). He died in the arms of his daughter Frances in a visit to her home in San Mateo, California on October 15, 1921.

Mr. James Likoudis is president emeritus of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF). His book Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism can be ordered from CUF (800-693-2484). His other two books, The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church and Eastern Orthodoxy and the See of Peter are available from the author, P.O. Box 852, Montour Falls, N.Y. 14865. His last article in HPR appeared in March 2003.

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