Ed Ricketts and the Episcopal Church

Ed Ricketts, child of the Episcopal Church, shown as an adultLike John Steinbeck, the writer’s friend Ed Ricketts was reared in the Episcopal Church, a coincidence of some importance. Described in Cannery Row as “half satyr, half Christ,” “Doc” Ricketts inspired the creation of identifiably Doc-like characters in works of fiction written by Steinbeck over two decades, including In Dubious Battle and Sweet Thursday. The friendship with Ricketts was fundamental to Steinbeck’s thinking through the 1930s and 40s, and the Bay of California scientific expedition undertaken by the men in 1940 produced Sea of Cortez, a collaborative meditation on the meaning of life that reaches an emotional peak on Easter morning in a passage foreshadowing The Winter of Our Discontent, a later Holy Week narrative with an Episcopal church setting.

Intimate Lives That Included Episcopal Church Training

Reared in Chicago, Ed Ricketts—like Steinbeck—attended Episcopal church services as a boy and received Christian training in Episcopal church Sunday school and confirmation classes. Intelligent, introspective, and independent-minded college dropouts, both men outgrew Episcopal Church teaching as adults, becoming skeptical about religion, passionate about science, and unconventional in behavior. When they met in 1930, Ricketts was running a biological-specimen business in Pacific Grove, California, and working on a pioneering textbook of coastal ecology eventually published by Stanford University. Steinbeck, recently married and undiscovered as a writer, was younger and less sophisticated. As he noted in his profile of Ricketts years later, Steinbeck learned deeply about many subjects, including music, from the man with whom he shared a deep personal connection based in part on shared experience in the Episcopal Church.

Reared in Chicago, Ed Ricketts—like Steinbeck—attended Episcopal church services as a boy and received Christian training in Episcopal church Sunday school and confirmation classes.

Their surviving letters demonstrate the intimacy of their relationship and their familiarity with Episcopal church doctrine, custom, and culture. Writing to Steinbeck in 1946, for example, Ricketts reflected with characteristic irony and humor on his mother’s recent death: “Directly after mother was taken very sick, she wanted an Episcopal priest. Terribly unfortunate that a few months before this, the satyr [in him] caught up with him again. . . . The wicked old women, of the church that was founded by charitable Christ, turned on him viciously.”  The parish in question was All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Carmel, the same Episcopal church where Steinbeck served as the godfather for his sister Mary’s younger daughter in 1935.

‘The wicked old women, of the church that was founded by charitable Christ, turned on him viciously.’

As a result of the clerical misbehavior detailed in the letter, Ricketts’ dying mother was visited by the rector of St.-Mary’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Pacific Grove, the same Episcopal church where Thom Steinbeck, the author’s son, would be married 50 years later. The Steinbeck family cottage where the writer and his wife were living when Ricketts and Steinbeck first met—and to which Steinbeck retreated when Ricketts died—is located only two blocks from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Both literally and figuratively, the Episcopal Church loomed over the lives of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts—the man he called his soul mate—from the beginning to the end of their intimate, intriguing relationship.

Photo by Bryant Fitch (October 1939) http://www.caviews.com/ed.htm

About William Ray

William Ray is a Steinbeck scholar living in Santa Clara, California. He received his PhD in English from the University of North Carolina.


  1. I do not agree on the profound influence of the Episcopal Church on Steinbeck or Ricketts. I recall reading that both attended a service at a local (Monterey) Unitarian Church just to satisfy their curiosity. The Unitarian – Universalist concept would be more inline with their holistic philosophies and world views. I do not recall any mention of continued regular attendance at Episcopal Church services.

    I guess it would be difficult to deny the influence on both men resulting from their connection to the Episcopal Church in their childhood. I do not believe there was further interest or influence as they moved into adulthood as there is no indicator of continued regular attendance at Episcopal Church service. Given what I’ve read, I cannot believe they would be able to recite the Nicene Creed without choking. the creed is at the core of the Episcopal Church’s faith. In my opinion both demonstrated the openness, kindness, and compassion qualities of the Episcopal Church. .

    • As readers will learn when my article on John Steinbeck’s Episcopal church roots appears in the upcoming issue of Steinbeck Review, the author participated in family Episcopal christening ceremonies–in Watsonville, in Carmel, and in Monterey–after he left Salinas and St. Paul’s for Stanford. He also requested and received an Episcopal church funeral service in New York when he died.

      However, I agree with you that neither Steinbeck nor Ricketts was a confessing believer as an adult, although I suspect that both could still recite the Nicene Creed from memory while, as you say, choking on the words. They were secular humanists with scientific minds; the possibility that they attended a Unitarian-Universalist service together is both intriguing and new to me. Steinbeck says in “Travels with Charley” that he attended Sunday service at a “John Knox church” in New England, the home turf of his Anabaptist paternal grandmother, but that is the only Calvinist relapse he records in writing about his life after the assertively anti-Calvinist novel, “East of Eden.”

      Unitarian-Universalism, the flip side of the New England Protestant coin, would be a logical choice for Steinbeck and Ricketts if either felt the need for more religion than they received from the profoundly spiritual imaginations revealed in their collaborative work and from their conversations together. Thank you for your discerning comments about this under-examined aspect of their lives.

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