Bishop Chase and the Sacralized Contemporary Moment

Philander Chase, Bishop of Illinois and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, preached at the consecration of the first Bishop of Alabama, Nicholas Cobbs, in May of 1844. Chase took as his theme man’s defiant intransigence towards the precepts of the Almighty. More specifically, he warned that a major consequence of the fall was man’s tendency to limit his understanding of the work God in history to his small, fleeting moment. “Amidst all the difficulties with which the great plan of redemption and salvation by the incarnation and atonement of the Son of God has had to contend,” there were said Chase, “perhaps, few greater than that which arises from the contracted view and partial light in which the corrupted nature of man ever disposes him to regard it.”

Humans, Chase lamented, should receive “God’s revelation of his will as a part of a great whole,” and view “every dispensation of His Providence in connection with his universal government of the world, as the Parent of the Universe.” A righty-ordered human mind regarded “the Author of our salvation as the master-builder of a great temple to his own glory.” But the sad fact of human existence, Chase stated, was that “man is ever prone to interpret all he sees, hears, or knows of God and his works, as meant to apply to himself, to his party, to the country and the age in which he may chance to live.” The obsession with using Biblical truths to sanctity and ritualize the socio-cultural dispositions of the moment made men resemble “the insect on a vast building which fancied” that all the “work, art, and science around him were displayed for himself alone, and the individual stone, and the little niche in the same, which he inhabited.” The mistakes into which man—with his insect-like inability to see God’s hand in history as anything other than codifying his own small intellectual, political, and social dispositions—fell “were not the fault of the great architect, but the result of his own littleness and vanity.”

Selfish, circumscribed men in all generations, Chase declared, cured their false estimate of things. Humanity’s failure to emerge from what the bishop called their selfish abode meant that they could never entirely see by the “light of the Sun of Righteousness to soar above his natural and corrupted state, in the pure air of revealed truth.” The tendency to baptize the dispositions of the moment kept men from understanding spiritual truths and the inerrant words of Holy Scripture. If men understood God’s teachings as properly timeless, they “might see not only the beauty of the divine workmanship, but the grandeur of the whole design; and with all such unity of parts, each with the other, all tending to one great effect, as to manifest wisdom, and power, and benevolence, far above his capacities fully to comprehend.”

Declarations regarding the timelessness of biblical truths serves as staples of Episcopal preaching in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. The dearth of writings from Episcopalians in the United States has left a weak historiography of the Episcopal Church’s intellectual and socio-political commitments in the Nineteenth Century, but there is some reason to think that their historical theology indicates a general conservatism, or at least an unwillingness to sacralize contemporary politics and society.

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