Bishop James Albert Pike (February 14, 1913-September 3?, 1969), US theologian

Episcopal Bishop James Pike was a controversial public figure during the turbulent 1960s, popular for discussing theological questions in plain language but controversial for his willingness to question church doctrine and deeply held beliefs. His willingness to question prevailing orthodoxy may have led him to embrace metaphysical silliness and hucksters who took advantage of his grief over his dead son.

Born in Oklahoma, his father died when he was two years old. He and his mother moved to Hollywood, California in 1921. Drawn to the spiritual life from when he was young, he used to dress up dolls as little priests. He had been raised as a Catholic and studied at the University of Santa Clara to prepare for the priesthood. However, doubt and skepticism caused him to abandon these plans and turn to the law instead. He earned a law degree from the University of Southern California (1936) and a jurisdoctorate from Yale University (1938). He moved to Washington D.C., joined the faculty of George Washington University Law School, and was certified to appear before the Supreme Court. In 1942, he married Esther Yanovsky. During World War II, he served in the Naval Intelligence Corps as a lieutenant j.g..

Law would not be his calling, apparently, as he converted to the Episcopal Church in 1942 and entered the seminary. At Union Theological Seminary, he studied under the theological heavyweights Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. In the priesthood, he quickly distinguished himself in a variety of church posts and became head of the religion department at Columbia University. In 1952 he was appointed dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and in 1958 he became bishop of the diocese of San Francisco.

His fame began when large crowds flocked to his sermons in New York. He became a prolific author, penning works like Beyond Anxiety, The Faith of the Church, If You Marry Outside of Your Faith, Roadblocks to Faith, and Doing the Truth which tackled religious questions in plain language for a popular audience. From 1955 to 1960, he hosted a weekly TV program on ABC where he interviewed guests about moral issues. People ranging from Linus Pauling to Aldous Huxley to his teenage daughter appeared on the show.

In California, he became an iconoclastic man for the iconoclastic times. In Grace Cathedral, he installed stained glass windows of “secular saints” like Thurgood Marshall, John Glenn, and Albert Einstein. He marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and spoke out against the Vietnam War. He challenged fundamental church doctrine like the virgin birth, the trinity, and the divinity of Jesus, and he did it publicly, in sermons, magazine articles, and books like A Time for Christian Candor, You and the New Morality, and If This Be Heresy. He appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, and inside he said things like he thought the Bible was “shot through with superstition, sheer evil, and flat contradiction.” Naturally, things like these made him enemies in the church, and he was brought up on charges of heresy no less than three times. He was finally censured by the church.

Pike was the first to admit that he wasn’t much of a family man. He struggled with alcoholism for years and his work and public life left him little time for his family. He plundered diocesan funds to support his mistress, who committed suicide in 1967. He and Esther divorced and he married his secretary, Diane Kennedy. His daughter Cathy attempted suicide.

What devastated him the most was the death of his son Jim. Jim committed suicide in 1966, which may or may not have been related to the LSD he was taking. Soon, he was convinced he was seeing signs from beyond with Jim’s return address: safety pins bent and books ajar at the angle formed by the hands of a clock at the time of Jim’s death. He began to consult spirit mediums to communicate with his dead son. Though he also consulted with mediums George Daisley and Ena Twigg (who later claimed she received messages from Bishop Pike himself upon his death and knew the location of his body), he was most associated with the infamous “Reverend” Arthur Ford, who used to hang with Harry Houdini. On Canadian TV, Ford claimed to communicate with not only Jim, but Pike’s old mentor Paul Tillich. Pike was utterly convinced. His final book, The Other Side, was about his investigations into life after death. What Pike apparently did not know was that while psychics and mediums excel at cold readings, they often build files and subscribe to secret “blue books” which contain information on high profile potential marks. After Ford’s death, his papers revealed that he had files on Pike and had used the information to fake the seance. Imagine that.

In 1968, he resigned as bishop and started the Foundation of Religious Transition, which exists today as part of the Teleos Foundation. In 1969, he and Diane took a trip to Israel, perhaps to retrace the steps of Jesus. They became lost in the Judean desert and their car broke down. Diane, who was much younger, went ahead to retrieve help, but took four days to find Pike’s dead body.

Philip K. Dick knew Bishop Pike and his final novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), is based on his life.

Sources:

Gale Contemporary Authors Online
Gale Religious Leaders of America
Gale Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology
“Bishop Pike”, “In Search Of...” episode, 1978
http://www.gracecathedral.org/church/crypt/cry_20011114.shtml
James Randi, An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural
Wesley Hyatt, The Encyclopedia of Daytime Television

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