The Halifax Explosion, Samuel Henry Prince and the Tradition of Christian Social Action at King’s

This Address was delivered in the Chapel on the centenary anniversary of the Halifax Explosion.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the most traumatic event in Halifax’s history. I use the word “traumatic” because the Explosion has received far more attention during the past thirty years than when I was growing up in this city during the 1940s and 1950s. The adults I knew, still in the prime of life, had lived through the event.  Barbara Orr Thompson was very much part of my childhood, perhaps my mother’s closest friend. She lost her parents, her five siblings, her grandfather and her uncle in the disaster. She herself lay in hospital for ten days before being discovered by a relative, who did not recognize her because her red hair had been dyed blue by TNT from the blast. I never once heard Aunt Barbara, as I called her, refer to the Explosion. Whatever terrible emotional scars may have remained she always seemed to me invariably upbeat, cheerful, and fun-loving. Fortunately her story was recorded and you can read the horrific details on several websites and in various books.

In the same way that persons returning from combat rarely talk about their experiences, I think Haligonians wanted to forget the Explosion as much as possible. As a boy I routinely encountered people with explosion injuries. My first piano teacher had lost an eye; the skin on one side of her face was drawn taut and scarred with small blue grains like gunpowder. She was a beautiful woman and subsequently married.  Another of my teachers had also lost an eye. The Explosion was there in the background for those who lived through it, but there was little desire for commemoration. Indeed, the disaster had no civic memorial until the construction of the library on Gottingen Street in 1964. The first yearly commemoration was held as recently as 1994, nine years after the completion of the Memorial Bell Tower in Fort Needham park, erected through the initiative of private citizens. The Tower houses a carillon originally donated by Barbara Orr in 1920 to the United Memorial Church in memory of her family. Revealingly, construction of the Needham Park Memorial Tower received no financial support from the city of Halifax, although Dartmouth gave $10,000.The  ”tradition” of sending a tree to Boston is actually of quite recent origin. A tree was donated in 1918 as an expression of thanks for the massive relief sent from Massachusetts, but this gesture was not repeated. It was revived in 1971, initially as a marketing gambit  by the Christmas tree growers of Lunenburg County.                      

The only significant work to address the Explosion before the publication in 1941 of Hugh MacLennan’s novel Barometer Rising was a Columbia University Ph.D. thesis by Samuel Henry Prince, published in 1920 as Catastrophe and Social Change. Four years later Dr. Prince was appointed professor of sociology and Divinity at King’s where he remained until his retirement in 1955. From this position he was to have a lasting impact upon the College, the Diocese of Nova Scotia, and the development of social services in the province.  At the time of the Explosion Prince was Curate at St. Paul’s Church, the wealthiest parish in Nova Scotia , an Evangelical stronghold in a High Church diocese. Born in 1886, he was raised in New Brunswick as an Evangelical and so did not attend King’s. He graduated from Wycliffe College, going on to complete an M.A. in psychology at the University of Toronto. He joined St. Paul’s in 1911, quickly becoming well known for a newspaper article in May, 1912 about the search for the Titanic dead which he accompanied to perform burials and memorial services. His organizational talents made him the protégé of the formidable Rector of St. Paul’s, Archdeacon W.J. Armitage, who was deeply disappointed when Prince resigned his curacy in 1919. Prince was a life-long bachelor, a private and somewhat remote figure devoted entirely to the Church, teaching and public service. It is revealing that although he played a significant role in the aftermath of the Explosion through organizing the relief efforts of St. Paul’s , there  is no reference whatever  to his own experiences in Catastrophe and Social Change.

Prince’s motives for going to New York to pursue at Ph.D. in sociology are not altogether clear. His biography by Bishop Leonard Hatfield provides little insight into his intellectual development.  However, much can be gathered from his later books and speeches, and by inference from the book Catastrophe and Social Change itself.  As has been pointed out by a number of commentators, his thesis on the Explosion was shaped as much by his teachers at Columbia as by his own research, which was minimal. Prince argues that the Explosion galvanized a stagnant city. “Search where one will, it would be difficult to find another city which has more completely exhibited the causes of social immobility as set forth by sociology.” The disaster impelled progress , which was achieved through  the introduction of modern techniques of social science and public health ; these in turn led to increased economic activity and civic improvement.

There are difficulties with this argument, which in some respects was factually inaccurate, and over-optimistic about the changes taking place in Halifax in 1920. However, Catastrophe and Social Change does reveal much about the framework of ideas that would guide Prince for the rest of his life. Human history is the history of progress, which frequently comes through disaster; for example, “the sinking of the Titanic has greatly reduced the hazards of the sea.” The key to modern progress is empirical investigation, although “Progress is not necessarily a natural or assured result of change. It comes only as a result of effort that is wisely expended, and sacrifice which is sacrifice in truth.” These Delphic words, I think, mean that for progress to be meaningful it must result in a society animated by Christian principles. This point is developed by Dr. Susan Dodd in The Halifax Explosion: The Apocalypse of Samuel H. Prince, her just- published commentary on Catastrophe and Social Change. Dr. Dodd argues convincingly that the thinking behind the book is as much a product of Prince the priest- social activist as Prince the sociologist. The Christian foundations of his thought are at the core of an address he delivered in 1949 upon the occasion of his retirement from 20 years as Chairman of the Nova Scotia Diocesan Council for Social Service. After detailing the causes espoused by the DCSS, such as pressing for minimum wages for women, old age pensions and the creation of the Nova Scotia Housing Commission Act, Prince concludes:  “… the opinion may be expressed that the most effective service of the Church in the future will lie …in the generation of a Christian atmosphere in which conditions which are anti-social must vanish as the mists before the rising sun. An informed Christian public opinion will do more than anything else to transform our society into one in closer accord with the ideals of the Kingdom of God…”

Prince’s appointment in 1924 as a professor of Divinity and as the first professor of sociology in the Dalhousie-King’s Faculty of Arts and Science had a profound effect upon the College and its future.  His presence made King’s  more acceptable to Evangelicals like Archdeacon Armitage of St. Paul’s who disliked the Divinity Faculty’s High Church orientation;  Evangelical support was crucial to financing the new King’s buildings on the Dalhousie campus including this Chapel, which was consecrated in 1930.  But more important was Prince’s impact on students, particularly six future priests who arrived at King’s during the depths of the Depression These included C. Russell Elliott, happily still alive today, Mel French and Karl Tufts. In Canon Elliott’s words, “the Church in general seemed old and tired and weary…”  He illustrated this point with an anecdote. One day he and Mel French spied an elderly professor moving slowly and heavily across the quad. “There goes the Church militant” French remarked. To Canon Elliott and his friends, later known as “the Briefcase Boys,” “Sammy”  became  “…an unconstituted and uncanonised patron saint.” The “Briefcase Boys’” outspokenness about issues of social justice led Archbishop John HacKenley  in 1940 to threaten five of them with revocation of their orders as Deacons and to deny them ordination as priests. Fortunately the Archbishop changed his mind.  Once ordained, they laboured tirelessly  in their parishes  for social and economic improvement.     

 Prince himself stayed away from politics, working within the existing power structure, for example in mobilizing support from the Liberal provincial government to found the Maritime School of Social Work in 1941. Some of those he influenced, however, were attracted by the predecessor of the NDP, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, or CCF. The CCF, led first by J.S. Woodsworth, a Methodist minister, and then by M.J. Coldwell, an Anglican lay reader, espoused a   socialist agenda in its founding document, the Regina Manifesto of 1933, which was deeply influenced by the social gospel movement of the early 20th century. Christian socialism and the CCF were closely linked.

In the late 1940s Fr. Elliott,  Fr. French,  Fr. Tufts and other “Briefcase Boys” joined the leftist Anglican Federation for Social Action, or AFSA, which proclaimed that “our present economic system frustrates brotherhood, as its appeal is primarily to self -interest  and its basis is competition; therefore this system is un-Christian and immoral.” Prince’s social activism had clearly led “the Briefcase Boys” into realms far beyond where their mentor was willing to go. Their involvement in AFSA created uneasiness in the hierarchy, as well as raising the ire of Reginald V. Harris, K.C., the conservative Diocesan Chancellor. Chancellor Harris, describing AFSA as “atheistic and communistic,” engaged in heated  exchanges with Fr. Tufts and other AFSA members  in the pages of the Diocesan Times.      

Even more radical than AFSA, and a further source of alarm to Bishop Harold Waterman, was the turn towards left-wing Anglo-Catholicism taken by a small group of King’s theological students led by Robert Darwin Crouse. He and three friends rejected AFSA on theological and political grounds, establishing in 1951 a connection with Fr. Frederic Hastings Smyth’s Society of the Catholic Commonwealth ( SCC). The SCC fused belief in a Marxist revolution with an idiosyncratic Anglo-Catholicism. Smyth worked out this synthesis in his book Manhood Into God and other writings; he also founded an Oratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1952 Robert Crouse became a member of Smyth’s Oratory while studying at Harvard. However, he soon broke with both Smyth and Marxism. As we all know Dr. Crouse eventually returned to King’s, where he had as great an influence upon the College as had Dr. Prince in an earlier era. These two remarkable individuals brought different but complementary gifts to their vocations as priests and professors.

 Today, on the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, let us give thanks to Almighty God for the life and witness of Samuel Henry Prince, priest, sociologist, reformer, and professor, who reminds us all by his teaching and example that social action is inseparable from the Christian message of love of neighbour.                 


Brown, Terry. “Metacosmesis:  The Christian Marxism of Frederic Hastings Smyth and the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth.” unpublished Th.D. dissertation,  University of Toronto, 1987.

Cuthbertson, Brian. A Journey Just Begun: A History of the Diocese of Nova  Scoti a and Prince Edward Island. Halifax: Diocese of N.S. and P.E.I., 2010.

Dodd, Susan. The Halifax Explosion: The Apocalypse of Samuel H. Prince. Grandview, P.E.I.: Underhill Books, 2017.

Elliott, C. Russell. The Briefcase Boys.  Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1996

Hatfield, Leonard, F. Sammy the Prince. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1990.

Prince, Samuel Henry. Catastrophe and Social Change. New York: Columbia University Press, 1920.

Roper, Henry. “Evangelical-High Church Conflict at the University of King’s College.” Journal of the Canadian Church Historical Society, 36 (1994), 37-57.  

Sutherland, David A., ed. “We Harbor No Evil Design”: Rehabilitation Efforts After The Halifax Explosion of 1917. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 2017.

Thorne, G.W.A.  Annual Report of the Chaplain and Priest-in Charge, King’s Chapel, March, 2016.