Episcopalians in the Early National Midwest: Against Rome and Revivalism

The congregation gathered at St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia understood that the service they observed was at once routine and also exceptional. The consecration of bishops formed an important part of the life of the relatively new Episcopal Church in the United States. George Washington Doane presided over and preached at service consecrating Jackson Kemper as the missionary bishop to Indiana and Missouri. Although the western territories of the United States in 1835 were populating quickly the Trans-Mississippi West and much of the modern Midwest remained virgin forests populated as much by native North American megafauna than settlers.

Doane, like most American Protestants, saw the near miraculous growth of American civilization in the early Nineteenth Century as an indication of divine providence’s blessing. Because God blessed Americans, they could not fail to engage in missionary work in North America. “Glance with a rapid eye at the strange signs which mark the times,” Doane told his listeners. “Look Eastward, and behold how throughout Asia ancient superstitions seem worn out and tottering to their fall. The sway of the false Prophet is now the shadow of what once it was.” Mystic spells, he said,  “which shut out China from the world” were “fast dissolving.” “The light of Gospel truth begins to break on her benighted and degraded millions.” Even in Africa, Doane told the congregation, “which, for so many centuries, has lain, in awful silence, like some old forgotten grave, grown over with long grass and weeds, faint signs of renovated life are seen.”  Holy and powerful sympathies, our pities, exertions, and prayers made Americans “look homeward” even as they say missionary growth in the Old World. “Through the regions of our own unbounded West see how the stream of life sets onward. Behold, in arts, in wealth, in power, a progress such as earth has never seen, outrunning even fancy’s wildest dreams.” The settlement of the West Doane warned, was preceding without “provision that at all keeps pace with it, for the securing of man’s nobler and immortal interests.” The American West was populating, but Protestant churches were not keeping pace. He lamented the “keen and shrewd regard the Church of Rome has marked that region for her own, and with what steadiness of purpose she pursues her aim; and seeks to lay the deep foundations of a power which is to grow as it grows, and to strengthen as it gathers strength.”

Anglicanism represented the best chance of making the American West civilized and Protestant. It also represented the best chance of fending off heterodox revivalism of Calvinist and Evangelical sects cropping up in nascent communities in western states. “The Church of England, long by God’s protecting favour, the stay and hope of Christendom, now needs her utmost succours for her own defence against the impious combination that attempts her overthrow.” That impious combination was formed by revivalist and Roman Catholics. “The Christian brethren, not of our communion, who have seemed to grow and multiply about us with a vigour so prolific,” had begun to feel and own, “the want of those inherent principles of union which alone can bind in one large masses of mankind.” Revivalist sects were “destitute of ancient landmarks,” which made them “stray insensibly from ‘the old paths,’ in which alone God’s promise gives assurance of protection and of peace.”  Believers who passed through revivalist churches “turn instinctively to us. They recognize the doctrines which we hold, as the old faith which once was given to the Saints.”

Doane’s sermon exemplified that the Episcopal Church saw itself as the only Protestant body capable of securing historic Christian doctrine and practice in the American West, and the only body capable of keeping the Roman Catholic Church from securing a foothold for ecclesiastical expansion in the region. Far from being theologically complacent or wedded to patrician sociology, the Episcopal Church in the Nineteenth Century aggressively engaged in domestic missionary efforts. [1]

[1] George Washington Doane, The Missionary Bishop: The Sermon at the Consecration of the Right Reverend Jackson Kemper D.D. (Burlington, NJ: J.L. Powell, 1835), 12-14.


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