William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne: "The Block Island Two"

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From the documentary film "Seeking Shelter."

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                                                                                                               Published April 13, 2020, updated February 4, 2024

William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne became unlikely heroes of the American Left when they were charged by the U.S. Government on December 21, 1970, for harboring a fugitive.

That fugitive was Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, and anti-war activist. He and eight other co-conspirators collectively dubbed the “Catonsville Nine,” had been convicted of destroying federal property—specifically, for burning 372 draft cards—during a protest against the Vietnam War.

All nine were convicted on three felony counts and given prison sentences varying from one to three years. Five of the nine decided not to cooperate with the federal government by turning themselves in and went underground. Among them, Berrigan managed to evade arrest for nearly four months, periodically appearing at protests and other solidarity events. He was eventually discovered and arrested by the FBI at “Eschaton,” the name for Stringfellow and Town’s cozy but isolated home on Block Island, Rhode Island.[1]

The “Block Island Two
Ultimately the charges against Stringfellow and Towne were dismissed, but not before they gained their own notoriety as the “Block Island Two.”[2] The news conference in which they discussed the federal charges against them was held at their home, and they went on to co-author a book about the ordeal, Suspect Tenderness: the Ethics of the Berrigan Witness (1971). The suspicious tenderness referenced was the Christian hospitality which Stringfellow and Towne extended to Berrigan, a longtime friend, by hosting him in their home. What remained unsuspected and unacknowledged through this incident and its aftermath was the relationship between the two hosts.

In 1970, Stringfellow and Towne had lived together for eight years, beginning just a few months after they met in 1962. The latter half of those years was spent on Block Island, the former in Stringfellow’s New York penthouse. They would continue their co-residence for another nine, until Towne's unexpected death, at age 51, on January 28, 1980. Stringfellow, who suffered for most of his life from a severe digestive condition, died five years later in 1985, at age 56.

Stringfellow, an Episcopalian, was a lawyer as well as a theologian and wrote prolifically about Christians’ responsibilities to challenge social and legal injustice. He was the author of more than fifteen books, including bestselling works A Public and Private Faith (1962) and My People Is the Enemy (1964).

Towne also wrote about spirituality, predominately as a poet; he was the author of Excerpts from the Diaries of the Late God (1968), a satirical rebuttal to the “death of God” movement, a 1960s trend in liberal Christian theology.

In addition to Suspect Tenderness, the two men co-authored two books about the controversial Episcopalian bishop, James Pike (The Bishop Pike Affair, on the church heresy trials of which Pike was the defendant; and a later biography, The Death and Life and Bishop Pike).[3]

Out? In?
Various commentators have described Stringfellow as “almost not out,” suggesting that both his homosexuality and his relationship with Towne was hidden—but only just barely—from public knowledge.[4] That assessment quite aptly captures the nuances of this particular relationship, but it in many ways elides a larger truth about the history of the closet.

To “come out,” in the sense of publicly declaring a gay identity was mobilized as a political practice during the lifetime of Stringfellow and Towne’s relationship, most famously by the gay liberation movement of the early 1970s. The Gay Liberation Front newsletter bore the slogan “Come Out!” The group’s founding manifesto elaborated: “homosexuals must openly affirm their sexual nature or be regarded as heterosexual.”[5] The measure of the closet—one’s “out-ness” or “in-ness”—was in Stringfellow and Towne’s lifetime not a mere description but a novel and disruptive political act.

It was also an act with severe social repercussions; thus, it is not surprising that neither Stringfellow nor Towne ever came out publicly as gay. The thin gap, the "almost” distance between what might be privately known but not publicly say-able was precisely what afforded the social assumption of heterosexual respectability.

Absent saying otherwise, Stringfellow and Towne could be bachelors, friends, housemates, and spiritual companions in a shared brotherhood. Each of these socially acceptable roles take up an appearance at various points in Stringfellow’s public writing, where they manage and contain the meaning of his relationship with Towne.

A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning
A case in point: Stringfellow's thirteenth book, A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning (1982), is entirely about his relationship with Towne. It is also a public chronicle of his grief, written in the year following Townes' death.

The book’s publisher, Abingdon Press, was affiliated with the United Methodist Church and catered to a relatively liberal readership. Homosexuality, however, was a burgeoning issue of debate in this venue; and, as of 1976, a newly established policy banned any denominational agency from using funds to “promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”[6] Had Stringfellow cast his relationship with Townes as sexual or romantic, the book would likely have been unpublishable.

Naming the Intimacy?
The result is a memoir about profound intimacy and loss, and yet the particular relationship at its center remains a question. That question is asked and answered at various points throughout the book.

The first query is in the preface: a friend asked Stringfellow “directly what” Towne had meant to him. Stringfellow’s answer is at once particular, elastic and evasive: “Anthony is my conscience.”[7] Here, and elsewhere, Stringfellow's naming of this relationship elides conventional social roles; he identifies profound connection while avoiding categorically any hint of sex or romance.

Further in, Stringfellow defines his and Towne’s relationship again with a parenthetical remark about their entwined life’s work: “His [Towne’s] vocation… was, in principle, monastic, as is my own. (That is the explanation of our relationship.)”[8]

A handful of pages later, Stringfellow lets drop a corresponding comment, which suggests that this shared monasticism did indeed entail sexual renunciation. The context for the remark was Stringfellow’s consultation with his physician, sometime after Anthony’s death, about his own ailing health.

The doctor recommended a surgical procedure. In the effort to persuade the skeptical Stringfellow about the operation’s benefits, the doctor conspiratorially adds that the operation will also improve his sex life. Stringfellow’s response is outrage: “I looked him straight in the face. ‘All this time I thought I was celibate,’ I replied sarcastically.”[9]

“All this time” might narrowly refer to the months since Towne’s death, but the phrasing is ambiguous enough to suggest that Stringfellow and Towne’s relationship had always been celibate. These layered allusions to Christian monasticism convey through suggestive hints—rather than by direct persuasion—that Stringfellow’s profound intimacy with another man was brotherly and spiritual and thus completely platonic.

The final chapter poses and responds to the question yet again. The focus here is on Stringfellow’s struggle to carry on domestic routines in the wake of Towne’s absence, whom he names this time “my sweet companion of seventeen years.”

Stringfellow describes the concerned advice of various friends, who urged him to find a surrogate, a role variously cast by different friends as “a secretary, a paramour, a houseboy, a bride.” Stringfellow scoffs at this advice: “I needed no surrogate for Anthony.”[10]

He also leaves unanswered the questions posed by his friend’s advice. Was Towne a secretary, paramour, houseboy, bride, or all of the above? Stringfellow’s response is disdain for the question.

Stringfellow’s refusal to respond is not, on the face of it, an effort to avoid scrutiny into suspected homosexuality. It is rather to stress that Towne was singular, irreplaceable; and that their relationship was similarly undefinable through any instrumental social role.

Of course, Stringfellow’s evasion might also simply be the social ruse of the closet. Personal friends knew that these men were gay. Stringfellow’s correspondence with friends and close colleagues suggests that he was less guarded about his relationship with Towne in the context of his social life.

One letter from a friend—Tom—to Stringfellow recalled his gratitude about being invited into the intimacy of a messy New York apartment that now included Tony. He thanked Stringfellow for not tidying up “either in terms of things or people” and expressed his gratitude for being introduced to Stringfellow’s “bean patch family.” (This bean patch, other letters suggest, included Bill and Tony, a cat, at least one rabbit, and—if vegetables may be considered family—an actual garden patch that Tony regularly tended). Tom closed the letter, “I know that I will see Tony again and he’ll give me a new cup of atmosphere to bathe in."[11]

B.J. Stiles, who published the writing of both men in his role as editor of the Methodist magazine motive, recalls being entertained in their one-bedroom apartment in New York, in which the two men quite obviously shared a bed.[12]

"We have all sorts of things to do - in bed (especially)"
Stringfellow’s archive also contains love letters from Towne that reference their sex life. About a year after they met, Towne writes one letter  to Stringfellow, who had been traveling: “[Y]ou have to come back—even itinerant evangelists have to refuel—and besides we have all sorts of things to do-in bed (especially) —but also out, I guess.”[13]

There were also, reportedly, a stash of love letters by Stringfellow to Towne that were lost after his death.[14]

And yet, what Stringfellow did not say publicly has helped to maintain a devoted readership, which to this day includes many conservative Christians who remain skeptical or condemning about the morality of homosexuality.[15]

What Stringfellow did say publicly--about monasticism, celibacy and Christian brotherhood—allowed him to create a public life together with Towne as collaborators and co-conspirators, but never—in public
—as lovers.

Their life together is not merely a case study of the mid-century closet; it also shows how Christian
traditions of spiritual brotherhood could continue to shelter same-sex love from social scrutiny.


[1] Indictment No. 7709 (December 21, 1971), in William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne, Suspect Tenderness: The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 117-119; “The Catonsville Nine File: Home,” Digital Maryland, accessed February 7, 2020, http://c9.digitalmaryland.org

[2] Bill Kovach, “Two Who Aided Berrigan Warn of U.S. Repression,” New York Times, December 22, 1970, 12; “The Block Island Two,” March 21, 1971, Box 15: Correspondence Files 1970, William Stringfellow Papers, 1940-1985. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University.

[3] “William Stringfellow, a Chronology,” in Robert Boak Slocum, ed. Prophet of Justice Prophet of Life: Essays on William Stringfellow (New York: Church Publishing: 1997), vi-xiv.

[4] Bill Wylie-Kellerman, “’Listen to This Man’: A Parable Before the Powers” in Slocum, ed. Prophet of Justice, 11; Andrew W. Mcthenia, Jr., “How this Celebration Began,” in Andrew W. Mcthenia, Jr., ed., Radical Christian and Exemplary Lawyer: Honoring William Stringfellow (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmand Press, 1995), 15.

[5] “Notes for a Political Platform and Program for Gay Liberation (March 1970),” 3. International Gay Information Center Ephemera Files-Organizations--Gay Liberation Front (NYC). Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library. For commentary on the history of the closet, see John D’Emilio, “Still Radical After All These Years: Remembering Out of the Closets,” in John D’Emilio, The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics and Culture (Durham, Duke University Press, 2002), 45-63.

[6] Victor Paul Furnish, “The United Methodist Experience,” in John Jesse Carey and Victor Paul Furnish, eds., The Sexuality Debate in North American Churches, 1988-1995: Controversies, Unresolved Issues, Future Prospects (E. Mellen Press, 1995), 173. 

[7] William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982), 23.

[8] Ibid, 52.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] Ibid., 121. 

[11] “Tom to Bill,” undated; marked 1963. Box 7: Correspondence Files 1963, William Stringfellow Papers, 1940-1985. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University.

[12] B. J. Stiles, interview with the author, July 22, 2019.

[13] Anthony to "String," October 29, 1963. Box 7: Correspondence Files 1963, William Stringfellow Papers, 1940-1985. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University.

[14] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, interview with the author, February 5, 2020.

[15] See, for example, Jason Goroncy, “On William Stringfellow’s Homosexuality,” 13 June 2010. Posted at Jasongoroncy.com, accessed March 27, 2020.