Former cowboy preacher who found happiness in Teignmouth revealed in new book | New
There is a black and white photograph of a serious young man that hangs on the wall of the vestry at Teignmouth United Reformed Church.
Around him are portraits of other ministers, but none of them seem to possess the magnetism or the gripping story of the enigmatic Reverend Stanley James.
When he took office at the age of 30 in May 1901, his congregation knew little about his exotic past. But soon they would learn that their new pastor had been a cowboy, shepherd, tramp and sailor in Canada, then a soldier and war reporter in Puerto Rico. These tales of adventure and derring-do would keep them going for the next five years.
Stanley was a natural revolutionary. Stimulating and difficult ideas were part of its makeup.
But his years in Devon, when he married his fiancee Jess and started a family in the little terraced house they rented on Lower Brimley Road, were the happiest of an otherwise hectic life.
He will always keep a soft spot for the peaceful seaside resort where he began his ministry.
How do I know this?
The unorthodox Stanley (1869-1951) is my mother’s father and my biography of him – Between Heaven and Earth: A Journey with My Grandfather – has just been published.
Once installed, Stanley wasted no time in making his mark. In addition to doubling the size of the congregation, he led ecumenical committees that sought unity among the various denominations in the region, established a men’s group, expanded Sunday school activities, and established literary and debate societies that discussed the pressing issues of the day. One meeting, according to the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, debated women’s suffrage, with the motion defeated and – surprisingly enough – “most women decided on the issue in the negative”.
He and other Mavericks made headlines for non-payment of the education component of local tariffs because they opposed the Conservative government’s bill that favored Church schools in ‘England.
He preached in other churches and invited other pastors to Teignmouth.
My research was aided by Teign Heritage, who unearthed a poster announcing my grandfather’s ordination ceremony in 1903.
But it was the Stanley stories of Western Canada that were the biggest draw.
He recounted how in the 1890s he herded cattle from a ranch in Alberta, kept 2,000 sheep from coyote attacks, worked as a reporter for the Calgary Herald, helped build the Crows Railroad Nest Pass and hopped trains like a tramp on the mile trip to Toronto.
He then enlisted in the US Army and fought the Spaniards in Puerto Rico while doubling as a foreign correspondent before nearly dying of yellow fever. It was intoxicating for the good people of Devon.
In the summer of 1905, a deacon from a London church took his annual vacation in Teignmouth. He attended Stanley Church and was in awe of what he saw and heard.
His church was looking for a new minister, so he recommended my grandfather for the vacant position, which he accepted.
When my grandfather left he was given a gold watch, chain and check, and the Reverend W Scott of Shaldon gave him two volumes “for remembrance”. He seems to have been much loved.
But Teignmouth’s happy days would never be repeated and the old hustle and bustle returned.
Over the next 10 years in North East London, Stanley embraced virtually every progressive political, cultural and religious movement, alienating the traditionalists of his church. He supported communism, the emancipation of women and pacifism during World War I, which fell like a lead balloon.
More scandal was to come. Enter three beautiful women, each from the Radical Arm of Trinity Church, Walthamstow.
Stanley, now a father of seven (my mom was number five), had an affair with one of the girls and had passionate affairs with the other two.
I discovered it after reading hundreds of secret letters and diaries from these women in the Women’s Library of the London School of Economics. One of the letters from Minna Simmons, a local nurse, was included in the 1994 Virago Book of Love Letters.
There is no space here to go into these documents in detail, but in my book I quote them extensively and they make an amazing read. How well Stanley’s family, friends or congregation knew I have no way of knowing, but by December 1916 he had resigned.
A tumultuous period ensued during which he worked for pacifist organizations and shared an office with the philosopher Bertrand Russell before converting to Catholicism in 1923. He befriended the writer GK Chesterton and became the one of the greatest Catholic commentators in the world, with nine books to his credit.
If he was not at the forefront of 20th century thinkers, his religious writings, carried out against the backdrop of extraordinary adventures, earned him an obituary in the Times upon his death in 1951.
One thing is certain: in an often troubled life, he will always remember Teignmouth for the peace, happiness and fulfillment he found there.
Between Heaven and Earth: A Journey With My Grandfather (ISBN: 9781838447700) by Robert Nurden is available on the author’s website: www.robertnurden.com and independent bookstores.
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