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Kelly And Mencken And God

May 2024
2min read


Dr. Howard A. Kelly did not limit his religious fervor to prayer meetings held prior to surgery. In an article in the February 6, 1975, New England Journal of Medicine , Dr. Laurence E. Karp tells of Kelly’s meddlesome attempts at “religious-oriented civic uplift” that led to a series of wellpublicized squabbles with the formidable H. L. Mencken. Karp describes how, after sharing a train ride with Kelly from Washington to Baltimore one day, Mencken became so provoked that “three separate times I was on the point of jumping out of the train-window.” It seems that Kelly, raised in a family of clergymen, made it his business to try to persuade others to share his fundamentalist views. He sometimes wore a lapel button embossed with a question mark and would query people he met as to its meaning—which he called “the most important question in life.” After stumping his victim with this riddle he would jubilantly exclaim: “The most important question is, What think ye of Christ? Whose Son is He?” Kelly also had a habit of waiting until his taxi had pulled up to a red light, then preaching at the driver: “Cabby, I hope when you and I come to the gates of heaven, the light will be green.”

Somehow Kelly found time between patients to serve as coeditor of the Christian Citizen , for which he wrote editorials advocating the Sunday closing of places of entertainment and, predictably, Prohibition. Mencken retaliated in the Baltimore Evening Sun: “[Kelly] happens to be a man I have long known, and in every respect save the theological, greatly respected. But in that theological aspect… he is so plainly a menace to the peace and dignity of this town that what he believes should be made known to everyone, that the people may be alert to his aberrations and keep a curb on his public influence. If he had his way … life here would be almost impossible to civilized men. He is against practically everything that such men esteem, at least in the way of relaxation and recreation, and he is moved by a perfect frenzy to put his prejudices into harsh and unintelligent laws.”

Kelly paid little attention to his critic, who referred to him as “Dr. Evangelicus.” He ran—unsuccessfully—for the Maryland Assembly in 1921, his platform based on “no liquor, no racetrack gambling, no unnecessary paid labor on Sunday.” Mencken exulted that the voters had refused to be taken in by Kelly’s “whole scheme of sanctification by force,” adding: “How long are the people of Baltimore going to stand this nuisance?”

Yet, surprisingly, the two harbored no deeply embedded antagonismJ toward each other. Kelly referred to “dear Brother Mencken,” vowing, “I am a friend of his and hope someday to win him.” Mencken returned the compliment: “We do not estimate the integrity and ability of an acquaintance by his flabby willingness to accept our ideas; we estimate him by the honesty and effectiveness with which he maintains his own.” On Kelly’s seventy-fifth birthday Mencken wrote: “More than once [Kelly and I] have been on opposite sides of some public matter, but every contact with him … has only increased my admiration for his immense energy, his unbreakable resolution, and his complete honesty. Baltimore owes him a lot.

C.J.F.

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