Thursday, October 18, 2007


In the study of Revolution it often happens that we come across intriguing characters on both sides of the struggle. Among those rebels who agitated for social change is my own great-grandfather, James Vint Laughland (1885-1957). He was of a generation who hoped to transform the world through political reform, which more often than not in the twentieth century resulted in violent revolution and totalitarian regimes.

James Vint, however, was a sincere idealist who was willing to sacrifice everything for the cause of bettering the lot of the workers. In his efforts, although he was not a Catholic, he mirrored the social teachings of the Roman Church. With zeal and conviction for what he thought was right, he risked imprisonment, ostracism, and exile. Heroism inspires and attracts; so often we have seen such heroism in radical groups, and we can only lament that every Christian is not aflame with the same courage for the Gospel.

Jame Vint was born into a well-to-do family in 1885. His parents, William and Margaret Laughland, had come from Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, Scotland to Southampton, England in 1879, where they had thirteen children. William operated a prosperous tailor shop in which the uniforms for cruise ships were made, and he sat on the city council for many years. A contemporary described “Councillor Laughland” as a “slightly enigmatic figure” who “played a lone hand and enjoyed doing it,” with traits of “effervescing good humor” and “grim heroism.” Margaret MacGuigan Laughland, called the “Belle of Southampton” for her striking beauty, was active in liberal ladies’ political clubs. She simultaneously nourished fixed, traditional ideas of behavior. Once when her daughter-in-law desired some kind of employment, Margaret locked her in her room, since (in her opinion) ladies were not ever to work outside the home for money.

James Vint was educated in North America where he graduated from the University of Toronto and from Meadville Seminary in Pennsylvania. He became a Presbyterian minister. He was concerned for the plight of the workers, too often the victims of injustice and unsafe laboring conditions. In 1908, he married Margaret MacDougall, the descendant of Highland Scots who had ended up in the coal mines of Nova Scotia. Margaret was a practical nurse and in later years her profession supported the family while James Vint pursued his calling as an activist. They had two sons, Milton and Emerson, named for their favorite poets. James was also a poet and wrote his wife very romantic verses over the years. They returned to England to a thriving London parish and settled into respectability which came to an end in 1918. In the words of a fellow minister:

At the close of World War I, when all churches in Great Britain were invited and expected to celebrate the signing of the Versailles Treaty, Mr. Laughland observed it in his church as a day of mourning instead, believing the Treaty to be so revengeful in substance and spirit that it would eventually lead to another war. How far sighted he truly was at that time! For this courageous realism, he was rewarded by losing his pulpit.

Not long after, he was called to Pembroke Chapel in Liverpool - another famous pulpit. It was a time of considerable unemployment in Great Britain as in many other countries. Mr. Laughland became the Secretary of an organization to help the unemployed and worked tirelessly for unemployment insurance or what has since come to be called “the dole” in British Labor Circles. The late Prime Minister, J. Ramsay MacDonald once said of Mr. Laughland that he had done more than any other individual in the country to get “the dole."

Because Vint Laughland was incapable of double talk and certainly incorruptible when it comes to calling things by their real names, he not frequently said or did the right thing at the wrong time, that is to say before many people were able to see that it was indeed the right thing to say or do….

James Vint ran for British parliament on the Labor Party ticket in 1924 without success. He nevertheless helped thousands to find jobs. He planned protests and spoke at rallies. Once he was arrested and beaten by the police for leading some workers in protest. The family eventually found themselves in upstate New York, where he became a Unitarian, more of an activist than a preacher, working for the unemployed and disadvantaged. He was a newspaper editor and a lecturer for many years, all the while writing extensively to his various “comrades” throughout the world. He was later described by a fellow socialist in the following manner:

Vint Laughland had a fierce hatred, not for any one of his fellowmen, but for some of the things they stood for…. He hated a coward as he did the liar and hypocrite, for he knew that in the minds of such there could be no room for honest thoughts and deeds….He believed that there is only ONE aristocracy, and that is of the mind and character.

(Sounds a bit like Cyrano de Bergerac....)

It is interesting to me how what was considered in those times a radical element had more of a sense of honor and decency than many fine, upstanding Christians do today. James Vint was not, in the words of a minister friend “embittered by his experience but rather transfigured by it.” He died in Rochester, New York on November 7, 1957, eloquent, brilliant, poor and greatly beloved.

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