Excerpt: Ellen Browning Scripps

The following is an excerpt from Ellen Browning Scripps: New Money and American Philanthropy (June 2017) by Molly McClain. 

Chapter 7: Old Age, New Age

At the same time that Ellen worked to establish the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, she also began to search for purpose in her own life. She had never been particularly speculative, having worked too hard to have time to question the nature and meaning of existence. She had no use for mysticism, and she was impatient with the claims of Spiritualists, many of whom she had encountered through her sister Annie. When she was in her sixties, however, she began exploring both New Thought and Theosophy in an effort to gain both self-knowledge and a sense of the changing times in which she lived.

After 1860 many mainstream Christian denominations began to lose ground to esoteric religion, or alternative spirituality. Historians describe this as part of a “crisis of intellectual faith” that stemmed from the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859).1 People slowly began to realize that the supernatural revelations of the Bible did not accord with empirical discoveries made in the fields of biology, geology, history, and paleontology. They also started to challenge crude and harsh statements of religious dogma voiced by nineteenth-century evangelicals. Doctrines such as original sin, reprobation, vicarious atonement, and eternal punishment seemed particularly unattractive themes in a humanitarian age. Instead of abandoning faith entirely, many people turned to unorthodox forms of spirituality such as New Thought, Theosophy, and Christian Science for answers. White middle-class women in particular were drawn to alternative religions that offered them a unique role in elevating the Anglo-Saxon race, advancing civilization, and inaugurating a new millennium of peace and harmony.2

Ellen had long since abandoned the hellfire-and-brimstone Methodism of her childhood and started to explore other faiths. After leaving the Presbyterian Church in 1879, she became interested in Unitarianism and attended services in Detroit. On moving to California, however, she only occasionally went to church. She spent most Sunday mornings reading or walking on the beach while other family members attended services in La Jolla at the First Church of Christ, which held Episcopal services in the morning and Congregational-Presbyterian ones in the afternoon. She once wrote that listening to a symphony orchestra “was better than a year’s Sunday sermons.”3

Like many Victorians, however, she remained deeply influenced by the Christian ideals of humility, self-sacrifice, and renunciation of desire, particularly as they applied to women. Ellen admitted that she knew all too well how to surrender her own will, “I suppose because I am a woman, and woman’s first lesson and only is submission.”4 Having spent her early life “constantly employed in some altruistic endeavor,” she continued to contribute to the comfort of others, even at the expense of her own needs and wishes.5 Her sister-in-law Katharine described her as a “remarkable person—such simplicity—such humility, such self-effacement seems hardly possible.”6 Mary Ritter, meanwhile, thought that her husband’s patron had a self-sacrificing streak that “amounted almost to self-immolation.” She found it particularly strange that Ellen refused to dress the part of a wealthy woman, saying, “‘No one needs less to eat or to wear than I.’”7

Ellen had difficulty accepting the bounty that the universe seemed determined to offer, particularly as money kept coming in. She could be extremely frugal when it came to spending on herself, if generous to others. Mary Ritter noted that Ellen rarely bought new clothes: “The hat she wore when I first saw her was of several vintages past and she wore the same hat at least two or three years longer.”8 She implicitly compared Ellen to Phoebe Apperson Hearst, whose husband had made a fortune in the legendary Comstock Lode. Unlike Ellen, Hearst used fine clothes and jewelry as a way to signify her social elevation from a Missouri farm girl to a San Francisco philanthropist.

Of course, Ellen had no need to acquire fancy clothes to live in La Jolla. Between 1905 and 1915 the village was “badly torn up and very dirty” as a result of street improvements and new construction, making it impractical to wear anything but the simplest outfits.9 She owned several tailored black suits that she had purchased in the 1890s but wore them so seldom that she did not feel they needed to be replaced. Moreover, having traveled through Europe and viewed the trappings of aristocracy, she had no use for pretentious middle-class San Diegans who thought that they could score a social coup by wearing expensive clothes.

Ellen was troubled not by thrift but by the residual belief that the pursuit of wealth was at odds with her identity as a Christian woman. Like many middle-class Victorians, she saw “success” and “womanhood” as antithetical. Men—the motors of economic productivity—were supposed to be driven by competition and the desire for success; women, on the other hand, were meant to use their altruistic hearts to ameliorate the inequalities rampant in industrial society. It is for this reason, perhaps, that she turned to the New Thought movement, which, among other things, helped women to legitimize their desire for wealth and personal expression.10


  1. Altholz, “The Warfare.”
  2. Satter, Each Mind a Kingdom, 23, 39.
  3. Ellen B. Scripps to Eliza Virginia Scripps, La Jolla, April 20, 1916, EBSC, drawer 3, folder 17.
  4. Ellen B. Scripps to George H. Scripps, Menaggio, Italy, June 13, 1888, EBSC, drawer 3, folder 29.
  5. E. W. Scripps, “Socialism—Individualism—Fatalism,” 1917, EBSC, drawer 1, folder 3.
  6. Katharine Peirce Scripps to Ada Peirce McCormick, June 15, 1927, APMP, box 2666, folder 10.
  7. “Memoirs of Ellen Browning Scripps: Personal Reminiscences by Mary Bennett Ritter,” Berkeley, CA, April 5, 1937, EBSC, drawer 1, folder 36.
  8. “Memoirs of Ellen Browning Scripps: Personal Reminiscences by Mary Bennett Ritter,” Berkeley, CA, April 5, 1937, EBSC, drawer 1, folder 36.
  9. William E. Ritter to Charles A. Kofoid, La Jolla, June 12, 1908, William E. Ritter Papers, SIO, MC4, box 1, folder 13.
  10. Satter, Each Mind a Kingdom, 15, 17, 22, 38.

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