Vol I No. 1

Goodness had nothing to do with it classical anglicanism from Elizabeth I to Mae West

William Noble McKeachie

Dean McKeachie, in the first of a two-part article based on his presentation to the Prayer Book Society’s most recent conference, pays tribute here to the remarkable personality and erudition of the late Fr. William Ralston. He was a man of formidable and diverse talents –as reflected in his being a preacher of note who was also a pianist. He was a leading figure in the founding of the Prayer Book Society and a long serving Rector in the distinguished tradition of St John’s Church Savannah. He was, as the article brings out, a man of wide ranging and always passionate convictions. His early study of the famous apologist William Porcher Dubose firmly grounded the way he deployed his wit and engagement with wider culture in defence of a classical Anglican tradition. Who else could juxtapose Queen Elizabeth I with Mae West to such theological advantage?


“If only the good were clever
And only the clever were good
This world would be so much better

Than ever we thought it could;
But the good are seldom clever
And the clever are hardly good:
The good are so harsh to the clever

And the clever so rude to the good.”

Such was the Sewanee version of a discerning ditty about fallen human nature the original of which is attributed to Elizabeth Wordsworth2. It was, like so much else, transplanted from the city of “dreaming spires” to old Sewanee’s “tower’d city set within a wood”, and it was still current there in 1947 when William Henry Ralston, Jr., went up to The University of the South from the Cumberland Gap in Kentucky.

The Wordsworth ditty comports well with the even pithier sayings of Mae (“I’m No Angel”) West,
that bawdy 20th century American songstress so much beloved of Fr. Ralston. Incongruous as it may seem, the principal clerical founder of the American Prayer Book Society and Twelfth Rector of St. John’s Church in Savannah adopted (so to say) Mae West as a kind of 20th century “alter ego” to his favorite Englishwoman, “Good” Queen Bess! He often quoted Mae West to hilarious yet theologically pointed effect, not least in some of his most erudite essays.

A few of Fr. Ralston’s favorite Mae West insights into human nature are worth citing as sardonically germane to the theme of the 2019 Prayer Book Society Conference, “What is Classical Anglicanism?”. Fr. Ralston himself was one who both knew and “lived” the answer to such a question, even as that answer has always been implicit, theologically and liturgically, on every page of the classic editions of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. In more facetious vein, is not such theology also implicit in many of Mae West’s notorious one-liners? To wit —

“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”
“When I’m good, I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”
“There are no good girls gone wrong, just bad girls found out.”
“Between two evils, I always like to choose the one I’ve never tried before.”
“To err is human, but it feels divine” (Fr. Ralston’s favorite).
“Goodness had nothing to do with it” (Mae West’s retort to a fan who had gushed, “You were so good in that movie!”).

After his death, Fr. Ralston was remembered and celebrated (albeit not by everyone!) for his erudition and eloquence; for his passionate, often curmudgeonly convictions, his pointed wit, his unapologetic likes and dislikes in food for soul and body; for his winsome, faithful, and personally loyal, loving pastoral care for “all sorts and conditions of men”; for his preferences in bourbon whiskey and baseball teams, as well “the beauty of holiness” in worship; for his mentoring of those younger and greener than he, especially in love of serious music and literature; and for his insistently discriminating exercise of severe or magnanimous judgement, and sometimes both together.

Above all, he was and is remembered for a Christian witness at once “Prophetic” in an Old Testament sense, “Johannine” in New Testament terms, and philosophically “Platonic” in a manner equally reflective of the “Ancients” and the “Moderns”. Fr. Ralston certainly agreed with Socrates that “the unexamined life” is not a truly human life, even as he shared with Thomas Aquinas and “old Calvin” alike the sense that, in T.S. Eliot’s words, the truest mode of knowledge — about “the world, the flesh, and the devil”, about the self, about God, and about the beginnings and the ends of all things — is a discernment “mixing memory and desire”, pointing beyond any and all human horizons, literal or otherwise: the discernment that “beauty, truth, and goodness” are three in one and one in three.

The spirit of Plato’s “Symposium” and “Timaeus”, of St. Paul’s apologetic at the Areopagus, and of St. Augustine’s “Confessions” lives still in the writings, and the remembrances, of the Reverend William Henry Ralston3.


Born in 1929 in Middlesboro, Kentucky, young William Ralston came by his traditional Prayer Book ethos honestly — the old-fashioned way — inheriting it from the great-grandmother who had been a founding member of the family’s local Episcopal Church. That inherited ethos was in due course nurtured and honed by William’s schooling, especially at old Sewanee, in the perspective of both the Ancient (Greek and Latin) Classics and the literature of the Old (American) South. Such living legends among the faculty as Charles Harrison, “Red” Lancaster, and Andrew Lytle4 seemed to consort with the brooding shades of Confederate Generals Leonidas Polk and Edmund Kirby-Smith, together with such scholars long-past (yet still “living presences” there) as Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (the “father of philology”), William Porcher DuBose (the “sage and seer” of old Sewanee), and Sewanee’s first professor of Biology (who had moved there from Harvard), John McCrady. And in All Saints’ Chapel — at that time only one-third finished, covered by a wooden roof hewn from the abundant forests of that ancient Cumberland Plateau — the genius of Thomas Cranmer “presided” over daily services of worship conducted according to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

Likewise, mid-20th century Sewanee’s still highly traditional Liberal Arts curriculum introduced William to many of the “saints”, secular no less than sacred, who came to inhabit his imaginative and intellectual life, as well as his teaching, preaching, and writing, for the next five decades —Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David and Jonathan, and the Hebrew Prophets; Homer and Thucydides, the Greek tragedians, Plato and Aristotle; the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Magdalene, St. Paul, St. John, Boethius, Alfred the Great, Dante, Shakespeare, George Herbert, John Donne, Dr. Johnson … all the way to T.S. Eliot among the living: “See, they return, and bring us with them”.

Thus it was as a Sewanee undergraduate that William began to “connect the dots” between the overlapping worlds of biblical doctrine, Christianity in the Protestant Episcopal tradition, and literature, philosophy, and music; moreover, it was then and there that he began to amass what became, reputedly, the largest private collection of recordings of classical music in the country. It was that collection, as it continued to grow right up to the first years of the new millennium, which Fr. Ralston eventually bequeathed to Sewanee, where today the University’s exquisite and technologically nonpareil listening library-cum-audio-archive is named in his memory.

By the time William graduated (“optime merens”) in 1951, he had already developed a keen sense of the traditional meaning of the term “common” as expressive of the mutual rootedness of a “Common” People of God, worshipping in adherence to the Book of “Common” Prayer in places, however geographically and demographically disparate, spiritually united and brought together “in Christ” by the use, liturgically, of that one Book. For William Ralston, such places would come to include not only Middlesboro and Sewanee but Chelsea Square (New York), Harvard Yard (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Queen’s Park (Toronto), St. Augustine’s College (Canterbury), Hillspeak (Eureka Springs, Arkansas), and eventually Madison Square (Savannah, Georgia). In 2003, according to his long-standing wish and destiny, his body was returned to Middlesboro to be buried — “in common”— “with his fathers”. Thus he came full circle to his original “Common Place”.


Just over half a century earlier, in order to prepare for ordination, William was sent by his Bishop
to The General Theological Seminary (Chelsea Square) in New York City. There he came under
the deep and abiding influence of its Professor of Old Testament at the time, the Canadian native, Dr. Cuthbert Simpson (a graduate of both King’s College, Halifax, and the University of Oxford), who taught him how to combine a moderate form of the “critical” and “historical” method of biblical exegesis with his already well-honed literary and musical sensibility, in the enhancement of a maturing Christian faith. It was, indeed, in this particular way that Fr. Ralston came to understand — to “stand under” — the single Word of God as authoritative, affirming that the Bible is “Holy” in and through the words of “all sorts and conditions” of human authors of the “divers and sundry” texts whereby Divine Revelation is disclosed to Human Reason, the Word Eternal and the Word Incarnate made manifest as the Word Written. Thus, Platonist that he was by classical education, as well as traditional Prayer Book Episcopalian by liturgical formation, William Ralston came to appreciate that “the Many” are the “divinely inspired” vessels of “the One” or, rather, of the One-in-Three and Three-in-One; and to avoid “falling into history” (“the second fall”, according to Andrew Lytle). He acquired, to the contrary, the conviction that history and historiography both “depend” on the God who is Sovereign over all things, sacred and secular alike.

“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”
“There are no good girls gone wrong, just bad girls found out.” “Between two evils, I always like to choose the one I’ve never tried before.”
“To err is human, but it feels divine.” “Goodness had nothing to do with it” (Mae West’s retort to a fan who had gushed, “You were so good in that movie!”)

Following ordination in his home church (as Deacon in 1954, Priest in 1955), Fr. Ralston returned to General Seminary to write his Master’s thesis on the theological methodology of William Porcher DuBose (1836-1918), who, as both a classical scholar and contemporary apologist, was widely said in his own day to have “vindicated” orthodox Christianity. According to Professor William Sanday of Oxford, DuBose was “the wisest Anglican theologian on either side of the Atlantic”5.

It was the melding of all these influences — Harrison’s in literary and musical judgement; Simpson’s in the de-construction and re-construction of Biblical texts, thereby confirming the inherently Triune integrity and “intentionality” of biblical narrative and witness; and DuBose’s in a theology of Incarnation, Atonement, and Reconciliation, at once Evangelical, Catholic, and Humanist — that enabled Fr. Ralston to absorb, transform, and transcend the prevailing shibboleths of historicism without embracing any single “school” of Metaphysics or Logic.

Like the “Classical” Anglican Divines of the 16th and 17th centuries (from Bishop Jewel to Bishops Andrewes, and beyond), Fr. Ralston was no ideologue. Rather, like the greatest of them, perhaps especially like John Donne and George Herbert (and Dr. DuBose 250 years after them), Fr. Ralston “lived” Anglicanism in flesh and blood, in mind and spirit, in liturgy and pedagogy, not arguing abstractly about disembodied theory but appropriating and embodying “tradition” with vivid particularity.

In 1956, Fr. Ralston was awarded a Church Society Fellowship in postgraduate research at Harvard, where he began a collegial relationship with the second most influential Canadian Maritimer in his life, the Reverend Robert Darwin Crouse. During the course of that lifelong friendship, Fr. Crouse became Professor of Classics at Dalhousie University and King’s College, Halifax, acquiring a reputation as North America’s most distinguished Anglican scholar of the mutuality between the Hellenic heritage of Western philosophical tradition and the Hebraic heritage of explicitly biblical Christian theology. Fr. Crouse was a founder of the Canadian Prayer Book Society as well as of the annual Atlantic Theological Conferences, to which Fr. Ralston became a recurrent contributor.

From 1957-1960, Fr. Ralston served as Chaplain and Tutor at Trinity College, Toronto, before taking up a two-year appointment as American Fellow at St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, at that time the Central College of the Anglican Communion. By 1962, Fr. Ralston was back on Sewanee Mountain, teaching for four years in the School of Theology followed by seven years mentoring undergraduates in English, European, and American literature — and in “the old ways” — as a member of the Faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences. During those latter years, he also served as Associate Editor — alongside Mr. Lytle — of The Sewanee Review, America’s oldest literary quarterly. A generation of Sewanee undergraduates came down from the Mountain with a lifetime store of anecdotes about Fr. Ralston’s literary likes and dislikes, indeed his forthrightly expressed loves and hates. One of the most vivid of such anecdotes was about his annual classroom quiz on Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”: “Don’t you love Anna?” — “Don’t you love Anna” — “Don’t you JUST LOVE ANNA?” he would ask or, rather, importune the students — repeating the question over and over with persistent and mounting fervor, until the entire class fervently responded in unison, “We LOVE her! We LOVE her! We LOVE her!”

“Platonist that he was by classical education, as well as traditional Prayer Book Episcopalian by liturgical formation, William Ralston came to appreciate that ‘the Many’ are the ‘divinely inspired’ vessels of ‘the One’ or, rather, of the One-in-Three and Three-in-One; and to avoid ‘falling into history’ (‘the second fall’, according to Andrew Lytle). He acquired, to the contrary, the conviction that history and historiography both ‘depend’ on the God who is Sovereign over all things, sacred and secular alike.”


Among the legacies of Fr. Ralston’s time on the Sewanee faculty was his 1966 Founders’ Day address affirming, commending, “magnifying” (so to say) The University of the South’s heritage and status within American academe as “A Common Place”: not that what it stood for was common in the colloquial sense of demotic but, rather, common in terms of the very definition of humankind as created in the image and likeness of the Creator. As with a “commonplace” book, a University constituted as both academic and ecclesiastical in character, and true to its defined stature as such, must be a repository and transmitter of what is “common”, that is, perennial, providential, what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things”, what underlies “la condition humaine”, fallen but redeemed. Along similar lines, another legacy of Fr. Ralston’s Sewanee years was his founding, together with a small group of nationally prominent writers, of the Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer. But most of all, there was his sheer (as it were) evangelical fervor in promoting the highest, most discriminating standards, customs, and tropes of culture generally, and music in particular, in the name and to the glory of God. Such gestures of witness were widely, as well as locally, perceived as gauntlets of defiance and challenge in the face of revisionism in theology and progressivism in politics; and from that time on, Fr. Ralston became a controversial, not to say polarizing, public figure in both the groves of academe and the corridors of ecclesiastical power.

Following a year as Associate Editor of The Anglican Digest, Fr. Ralston was called to be the Twelfth Rector of historic St. John’s Church, Savannah. Its first Rector, Stephen Elliott, had served also as first Bishop of Georgia, as a founding Bishop of The University of the South, and as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the Confederacy. His sixth successor, Paul Reeves, Diocesan Bishop at the time of Fr. Ralston’s induction and institution, was a kindred spirit, one of the few bishops of the Episcopal Church in the late 20th century to share Fr. Ralston’s convictions in literature, liturgy, theology, and ecclesiastical politics.

During his Rectorship, Fr. Ralston had two honorary doctorates conferred on him, one by the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Kentucky, the other by the University of King’s College in Nova Scotia. Alas, his outspoken, widely circulated — and widely read! — jeremiads, lambasting what he called the “deliquesence” of the Episcopal Church, doubtless kept him from receiving similar honors from his own Alma Maters. But Fr. Ralston never shrank from taking a stand! Thus, in 1991, when six Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Maryland (including the present writer) co-authored a jeremiad of our own, taking our national denomination to task for incipient apostasy, Fr. Ralston telephoned me immediately to say he wanted to be among the first to endorse our Declaration. He allowed that he detected a certain influence of Karl Barth underlying it — warily unacknowledged as it was by the Declaration’s authors! — and that thereby we surely also had the supernal endorsements of both Bach and Mozart. “What about Beethoven?” I asked. “I bring that endorsement with my own!” he assured me6.

Fr. Ralston’s articles week in, week out in the St. John’s Parish Paper, tracking the spiritual, liturgical, and ideological “negligences and ignorances” of the denominational leadership of the Episcopal Church nationally, provide in retrospect the most comprehensive accounting at the time of the Protestant Episcopal Church’s self-betrayal, theological inanity, and numerical implosion in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, Fr. Ralston and his Vestry resolved, in Churchillian fashion, “never, never, never, never [to] give in”; by the same token, they were resolute in never, in any way, initiating a formal schism or seeking to sever their historic ties to the national church body. But twenty-five years after his accession as Rector, and in failing health, Fr. Ralston retired in 1999. Named Rector Emeritus, he remained as socially and culturally active as possible. He died in 2003.

[Part II of this article will be in next edition of the Anglican Way]


  1. This essay incorporates material used for my presentation to the Prayer Book Society (USA) Conference in October of 2019 at St. John’s Church in Savannah; my hope is to publish a considerably expanded version of it in book form for the 20th anniversary, in 2023, of the death of the Reverend William Henry Ralston, Jr., in Savannah. Twelve of Fr. Ralston’s essays were brought back into print — “That Old Serpent” — and made available at the Conference, to be savored anew, in recognition of the 90th anniversary year of Fr. Ralston’s birth in 1929, the 45th of his call to St. John’s in 1974, and the 20th of his retirement in 1999. Thanks to Professor Thomas Carlson at Sewanee and Fr. Gavin Dunbar at St. John’s, these essays have been republished by the Prayer Book Society as a memento of its 2019 Conference. Copies are available from the Society. The Reverend Douglas Dupree and the Reverend Frederick Buechner shared personal reminiscences with me as I was preparing my paper, but they bear no responsibility for any errors, omissions, or false judgements of my own.
  2. The poet’s niece, the bishop’s daughter, the liturgiologist’s sister, and herself the founder of both Lady Margaret Hall and St. Hugh’s College, Oxford
  3. In assembling these recollections of Fr. Ralston’s embodiment of the Christian Way, I am conscious — to adapt André Malraux’s apologia for his memoir of Charles de Gaulle and de Gaulle’s “certaine idée de la France” — that my personal witness to Fr. Ralston, and to his own “certain” ideas and life, is a scholarly monograph in the same sense as Boswell’s Life of Johnson, “c’est-à-dire, pas du tout”. The transcendent and symbolically significant aspects of a Great Soul’s life are most truly recalled and transmitted as matters of personal recollection, at least as much as matters of fact.
  4. Mr. Lytle — novelist, essayist, editor, raconteur — was one of the so-called “Southern Agrarians”, notable or (in our “politically correct” times) notorious critics of the 20th century erosion of the “traditionalist” point of view about our “common” human nature as creatures of God but, by our own sin, “fallen” from that perfection; individually and corporately, socially, politically. Dr. Lancaster was quondam Commandant of the Sewanee Military Academy, subsequently Professor of Political Science and Dean of Sewanee’s undergraduate College of Arts and Sciences, and perpetual Virginian; Dr. Harrison was long-time Spalding Professor of English, Dean of the College, renowned Shakespearean, and the mentor who inspired William Ralston to begin his lifelong collection of classical records.
  5. William Sanday (1843-1920) was Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford during the years when all of DuBose’s books were published.
  6. The famous Barthian story about the status of Bach and Mozart in heaven was introduced to an English language readership by Thomas Merton in the pages of The Sewanee Review (several years before Fr. Ralston’s associate editorship). Fr. Ralston himself likened Bach to God the Father, Beethoven to the Son, and Mozart to the Holy Spirit. The profound importance of music for Fr. Ralston requires more space to explore than is available here; I hope to devote a substantial section of my fuller monograph to this topic.