Jacksonian Miscellanies, #49

February 17, 1998

Chase and Otey: Episcopalian Backwoodsmen

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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This issue is Part 2, Chapter VII of History of the American Episcopal Church, from the Planting of the Colonies to the end of the Civil War, by S.D. McConnell, Rector of St. Stephen's Church, Philadelphia, 3rd Edition,
New York: Thomas Whittaker, 2 and 3 Bible House, 1891.

It focuses on the new states, in the years 1820-1835, and particularly on the careers of pioneer bishops Philander Chase (uncle of Salmon P. Chase) and James Harvey Otey. Though them, it illustrates something of a grassroots movement towards a more aggressive Episcopal Church, and, by 1835, the institutional abandonment of "its impotent attitude of waiting for churches to come".



"THE Report of the Committee on the State of the Church " for 1820 shows that it was then organized in all the original States. There were not yet bishops in all, but the scattered congregations in each had drawn together. In one instance, several separate States had confederated into a temporary diocese, with the expectation that some time the federation would be loosed by mutual action, and each independent unit of it would set up for itself. The idea of propagandism was but faintly, if at all, present in the mind of the Church. The State idea still controlled [
White: Memoirs, pp. 464-467
]. The functions of the national body were conceived to be discharged when it had provided and set forth the terms and conditions upon which any new State might come in. When any should be ready it would volunteer to come. Each was thought of as an independent ecclesiastical empire. That had been the underlying principle of the original federation. The idea of the central organism going forth to plant new soil, cultivate the tender shoots, and gather the harvest into the common garner, had hardly.begun to be entertained. It was true that the Church's conscience had been dumbly uneasy in presence of the situation for a long time, but no way to correct it was evident. For more than a generation there had been Church families "over the mountains," ministered to fitfully by itinerant priests, and often crying out for succor. But with the theory which the Church had accepted about her own relation to the States, she was impotent [Perry: History, vol. ii. p. 240.]. She must wait until the feeble folk in any political division should grow strong enough, draw together of their own motion, organize themselves into a State Church, choose a bishop, and ask for admission. Meanwhile they must be left to themselves, not unpitied, but unaided. The Rev. Joseph Doddridge, who itinerated in Western Pennsylvania and Virginia in 1811, says [Perry: History, vol. ii.., p. 228.] that large portions of that great region, including Kentucky and Eastern Ohio, bad been settled originally by Church people from Maryland, Carolina, and Virginia. When they crossed the mountains they left their Church behind them. In their old homes they had enjoyed its privileges, as they had those of sun and soil, without much thought or appreciation. But now that it was lacking, they missed it sadly. They could not fall in with the crude religionism which prevailed in the backwoods. Their children were either becoming indifferent, or being carried away by the rude excitements of Methodism. The indefatigable "circuit-rider," with Wesley's tracts stuffing his saddle-bags, was riding from week's end to week's end under the shadow of the ancient forests, stopping at every clearing to leave a tract and a word of exhortation; frequenting the "log-rollings," "house-raisings," "huskings," and "scutching-frolics," seeking a chance to preach; unmindful of heat or cold, swollen rivers or gloomy swamps, of ribald jests or coarse opposition, sustained by the fire of a glowing enthusiasm to "save souls from Hell-fire." [Eggleston: The Circuit Rider; The Hoosier Schoolmaster]. The Presbyterians were building their log-churches and cabin schoolhouses, organizing Presbyteries, and fixing the religious life of the region for three generations to come.[
Smith: Old Redstone; Ib.: History of Western Pennsylvania.]. The Churchman was left to one side, unheeded. The Methodist pronounced him destitute of "vital piety; " the Presbyterian called him a superstitious moralist; his own National Church left him to live or die as might be. The half-dozen clergy wandering through this widespread region of poverty and religious confusion met together and begged the Church to come and look after her children. But they begged in vain. Doddridge declares that he had no expectation of even being buried as a Churchman when he should die. He affirms, in a letter to Bishop Hobart in 1816, that if the Church had used her opportunity, there might then have been "four or five bishops in this country, surrounded by a numerous and respectable body of clergy, instead of having our very name connected with a fallen Church." [3 Perry-, History, vol. ii. P. 26.]

These facts had been before the Church, and had disturbed its conscience and heart as early as 1792. Then the Convention had passed a resolution urging each parish to take an annual collection for the help of the Church people in the western country, and had appointed the Bishop and Standing Committee of Pennsylvania a committee to administer the fund, and to send missionaries when and where they might see fit [Gen. Con. Journal, 179-9.]. So little came of it, and so little was expected to come of it, that Bishop White, in his resume of the Convention's acts, does not so much as allude to it [White: Memoirs, Convention of 1792.]. Sixteen years later a committee of three bishops, three clergy, and three laymen was appointed to consider the situation, and granted the power to send a bishop into the new States and Territories, if they should think it advisable [Gen. Con. Journal, 1808]. In 1811 the committee report that they had not been able to see their way to take any action. Bishop White suggests, in that connection, that if a bishop should be appointed in that region, be would hope to be relieved by him of the care of his own parishes which lay beyond the Alleghanies!

It would not be fair to say that this long neglect of the regions beyond the pale was wholly the result of indifference, or to say that nothing was done. Something was effected, but at an infinite cost of time and opportunity. Even before the National Church became alive to its corporate responsibility, and before the notion of State autonomy was laid aside, three new States had been carved out of the national domain, and the churches within them had organized themselves and come into the federation. These were Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The missionary history of these is to be found by following the lives of two remarkable en.

Two streams of emigration flowed westward. The first, from the meagre soil of New England, followed its own belt of latitude and settled in the basin of Lake Erie, and upon the interlacing tributaries of the Cuyahoga, the Muskingum, and the Maumee. New York reabsorbed her own emigrants within the Mohawk valley and her own broad lacustrine domain. The second and fuller tide flowed from the old Middle colonies into the Ohio valley proper, and southwestward toward the Gulf. The first of these carried Philander Chase; the second, James Harvey Otey.

Chase was of pure New England, Puritan stock, born on the bank of the upper Connecticut, reared hardly in a Vermont farmhouse, and graduated at Dartmouth College [Bishop Chase: Reminiscences, second edition, vol. i. p. 7. ]. When in college in 1794, he, like Dr. Cutler had done at Yale, seventy years earlier, found, by chance, a Prayer-Book [Ib., vol. i. p. 16]. His study of it brought him to the Church. The young convert went home, upon his graduation, and convinced his father's house. He was ordained, and became at once the indomitable, eager, restless missionary and frontiersman which be remained until his life's end. Probably no man in the American Church has laid so many foundations. He tried his 'prentice hand in the new settlement on Lake George, and organized a parish there [Bishop Chase: Reminiscences, vol. ii. p. 28.]. Among the stumps and cabins at Utica he laid down another; another in the presence of the wondering Indians at Canandaigua; another at Paris; another at Auburn. But his restless spirit soon bore him farther afield. He returned down the Hudson, and sailed away to the far-off mouth of the Mississippi. The "Protestant Church " of New Orleans had already a loose organization. Chase drew its bands closer, persuaded it to come within the Protestant Episcopal Church, and became its rector [ Bishop Chase: Reminiscences, vol i p. 54.]. His tireless labor, and his excursions far and wide through the swamps and bayous to the outlying settlements, brought him to death's door with a fever, from which he was recovered by a plentiful exhibition of "fixed air." [Bishop Chase: Reminiscences, vol. i. p. 98.]. When he brought his shattered body North, he was content to be a parish priest at Hartford only until, with returning strength, returned his "Western fever." In 1817 he started for the distant "Western Reserve." .In midwinter, on horseback, and in a shackly pung, he crossed Connecticut and New York, bidding God-speed to the churches he had gathered years before, stopped to rest at the half-dozen cabins of Buffalo, intrusted himself and his horse upon the ice of Lake Erie, was near being drowned more than once by the ice breaking through, and found his journey's end at Salem, Ohio [Bishop Chase: Reminiscences, vol. i. p. 127.]. "There was not an Episcopalian in the place." Nothing daunted, when Sunday came, he announced who he was and why he had come, gathered the people together, read prayers, telling the people how and when to respond, and delivered his message. The people "were much pleased with the prayers." There were already two clergy in the State, remote from him and from each other. For a year he went about from hamlet to hamlet, from clearing to clearing, gathered the Church people of whom he heard from time to time, established new posts, put himself in communication with the other missionaries, and in 1818, five clergy, constituting the whole force in the State, together with half a dozen laymen, met, organized a diocese, and elected Chase bishop. He was consecrated in Philadelphia, February 11, 1819. Then he plodded back on horseback, nearly freezing by the way, through York, McConnellsburg, Greensburg, and Pittsburg to Ohio, and began his life's work as bishop and backwoodsman. The frontiersmen were either indifferent or hostile to the Church. Indeed, Episcopalians formed a small proportion of the emigrants to the West. In the previous history of the country, the Church, as has been seen, had its strength mainly among the wealthy, official, aristocratic classes. These did not go West. It was the farmers, yeomanry, and mechanics who sought better fortune beyond the mountains. These were, for the most part, ignorant of the Church's ways and spirit. Few men have ever known so well as Bishop Chase how to win them. Once when he had appointed a service at a certain time at a distant Place, he found, upon his arrival, that the bostile denominations had intentionally fixed a "Union Protracted Meeting," at the same time and place. When be came in it was in full blast. Fortunately he found on the outskirts of the crowd a Presbyterian gentleman, who did not at all approve of the tactics which his minister had used in fixing this meeting. By him the Bishop sent, courteously asking the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist ministers present to come to him. When they came, sullen and pugnacious, he said, "I have come here by appointment to hold a service; I beg you will join with me in conducting it and making it profitable." Without waiting for a reply, he marched to the platform, with them at his heels, and announced: "Neighbors, I hold in one hand a Bible, in the other a Prayer-Book. The one teaches us how to live, the other how to pray. I know you are familiar with the one, I doubt if you are with the other. I have brought some dozens of copies with me. With the aid of these, my good brethren, I will try to lead you in the service. If any of you, through the depravity of the natural heart, are averse to being 'taught how to pray,' you need the teaching all the more on that very account. Without confession there is, as you know, no remission of sins. We will therefore confess our sins to Almighty God, all in the same voice. You will observe that no man can say 'Our Father' until he has confessed his faults; we will now say 'Our Father who art in heaven.' The proper attitude when we pray is upon our knees, as did Solomon, Daniel, Stephen, and Paul. After their example, I enjoin upon you all to fall upon your knees." And so the service proceeded, "the response from the great congregation being as the voice of many waters."

Did any good result from it? He "hopes so indeed; but much of the good was lost for want of shepherds to gather in the lambs" [Reminiscences, vol. ii. p. 201]. As a man who knew his people, lived and loved their life, he travelled hither and thither, and laid the foundation of the Church in Ohio. The monument to his name is Kenyon College. He saw very early that the Church, to be successful among the people, must be home-bred. There was no place or way to train up a ministry; he would make one. When his plan was mature, he took the unheard-of step of going to England for the money needed. No such bishop had been seen there for a thousand years. His rugged simplicity awoke attention, and he became the rage. With the friendship of great men and noble ladies, with his pockets full of money, he came home and planted his seminary and college [Perry: History, vol. ii. p. 170.]. He built his brain and heart in it. But with its growth and success came a conflict between himself and his subordinates as to its management. Finally, after what seemed to him an unworthy and ungrateful thwarting of his wishes in the matter, he turned his back upon the noble institution which stood in the broad demesne that he had wrested from the wilderness, mounted his horse, and rode away into the back-woods of Michigan. His real work was among the primitive frontiersmen. But in Kenyon College and Jubilee College he laid foundations upon which other men ought long ago to have built strong towers for education and the Church. They were earliest on the ground. They possessed the good-will and respect of the people among whom they were planted. But they have been overshadowed long since by the institutions of other faiths. Bishop Chase had done his work. Through him the Church in Ohio had been gathered, and received, not without questioning and hesitation, into the Federation which waited yet for, such State Churches as might volunteer to come.

Kentucky had already come. Among its very earliest settlers had been a clergyman of the Church. The first to enter its borders had been Episcopalians from Virginia. But they were early overrun by the stream of Scotch-Irish which poured over the Blue Ridge after the Revolution. These carried with them the antipathy to the Church which their fathers had brought across the ocean with them. It had not been lessened by the Revolution and the Indian wars. The "Episcopal Church" was linked in their minds with Tories, and with the British officers whom some of them had seen among the Indians when, in their own early life, they had been carried as prisoners to Detroit. They bad learned their letters from a primer on the title-page of which was a cut of John Rogers at the stake, surrounded by his wife and children. The picture, with its moral, was as deeply fixed in their prejudices as was the alphabet in their memories [Roosevelt: Winning of the West, vol. i. p. 309.]. The memory of the early missionary, murdered by the Indians, had faded out of the land [Perry: History, vol. ii. p. 198.] But in 1794, a prominent Presbyterian minister, the first president of Transylvania University, had come into the Church, been ordained, and ministered to the scattered people. A few years later a popular Methodist preacher had followed his example. But in the main the country was given over to the revivalism which came in during the last years of the "Great Awakening." [I Tracy: The Great Awakening. I Roosevelt: vol. i. p. 309.]. From time to time, at long intervals, adventurous clergy found their way among the uncouth backwoodsmen. In the larger towns a permanent lodgement was slowly effected. In 1829 the clergy of the region and lay representatives from Lexington, Louisville, and Danville met and organized the Church in Kentucky. Three parishes, with four ministers, composed its strength. They elected Benjamin Bosworth Smith to be their bishop, and another State was admitted to the federation.

James Harvey Otey was a gaunt, raw-boned, six-foot-three son of a Virginia farmer, the grandson of a Revolutionary soldier, born under the shadow of the Peaks of Otter. When he had graduated at the "University of North Carolina " he intrusted his life and fortune to the stream which was bearing the enterprise and vigor of his day to the West and South. The wares at his disposal were such as he had accumulated while at college. He moved to Franklin, Tenn., and became the pioneer school-teacher [Green: Life of Bishop Otey, p. 7.]. When thus employed he came in contact with one of the few passing priests, and was baptized. He went to North Carolina, and was ordained by Bishop Ravenscroft, the man he loved above all others. When he returned to his school there was no Episcopal congregation in the State, and no other clergyman of his Church within two hundred miles of him [I Green: Life of Bishop Otey, p. 42.]. His office was despised by the people among whom he lived, and his Church was held in contempt [2 Green: Life of Bishop Otey., p. 56: " I knew and felt at the time that I was looked upon with contempt, if not despised, by the great mass of the people."]. Curiosity drew the people to "hear the Episcopal minister pray, and his wife jaw back at him" in the responses [Green: Life of Bishop Otey., p. 56.]. When they had come, however, Otey's splendid character and deep earnestness retained them. He was a man of the backwoodsmen's own sort. Once when he was asleep in a rude tavern, a local gambler waked him roughly and demanded his bed as his own. When the sleepy man demurred the gambler threatened to throw him out of the window. Then the sturdy priest thrust from under the cover a brawny arm, worthy of the Holy Clerk of Copmanhurst, and said: "Before you try to throw me out of the window' please feel that. [Green: Life of Bishop Otey., P. 84.]." His stalwart Christian manliness and sweet devotion made him and his Church respected. He was tireless and successful in laboring for its growth. In 1829, he, with two other clergymen, met in Nashville, and organized the Protestant Episcopal Church of Tennessee. When their number grew to five, they chose Otey bishop, and a new State was admitted to the federal Church. The churches in Mississippi put themselves under Bishop Otey's care. Like Chase in Ohio, he dreamed of a theological school. He was a teacher by instinct and habit. He labored for years to establish Christian education. He left his impress upon the public schools of his own State and Mississippi. He founded a school for girls, and another for boys. But his own drearn did not come true for many a year, when it was realized in the University of the South. In the first five years of his Episcopate the clergy of his diocese increased from five to twenty-one [Green: Life of Bishop Otey., P. 42.]. But a whole generation had meanwhile been lost to the Church.

To overtake the movement of population in the great West had already become well-nigh impossible. Unless the National Church should abandon its preconception of autonomous State Churches it never would be possible. As to the government of the churches already within the federation, the notion of State independence was already slowly disappearing. A movement toward centralization had long since set in unobserved. Powers were even now exercised by the General Convention without question, which had at first been assumed without question to belong to the States. The time had now come for the National Church to become a Propaganda (sic). In 1835 it abandoned its impotent attitude of waiting for churches to come, and resolved to move out and build them. The General Convention, in that year, formally declared that every baptized member was ipso facto a missionary; constituted a Board of Managers who should represent the whole people; and provided for the sending missionary bishop in advance of any call for them.

The action was revolutionary. Through it, Episcopacy passed from the idea of a Federation of constituent State Churches to that of a National Church with component dioceses. It was not by accident that the question of the division of one of the original States into two or more dioceses arose at the same convention. Both actions sprang from the same source. The conception of the Church's structure had changed [White: Memoirs, p. 465.]. While the old theory obtained, its enthusiasm could not find expression. So long as it remained in the calm, cautious, constructive mood, that theory would suffice; but if ever its heart should be deeply stirred, it would change its way of thinking. That access of zeal had already come, and the old bottles could not contain the new wine.

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