Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple, part I

(Image courtesy of

Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple was a truly remarkable man; he was one of the finest examples of what a Bishop of the Episcopal Church can be and do on a number of levels, both within the Church, as emissary of the Church, and as a public citizen of the United States of America.

Bishop Whipple was born in February, 1822 and lived to see the dawn of the 20th Century, dying on September 16th, 1901. His life encompassed what is now known as the Victorian Era and spanned the tumultuous times in Americana that included Indian Wars, the War between the States, and the closing of the American frontier to which he had been a missionary bishop for so many years. He is, to my knowledge, the only American Episcopal bishop to be thought well enough of by both the Native Americans, who referred to him as "Straight Tongue" by more than one Native American tribe at the time, and Whites as to also have a Federal building named after him. (See my blog entry teaser that I posted on Monday.  The building in the background, of which you can make out "ENR- WH-," is the Bishop HENry WHipple Federal Building in Fort Snelling, MN.)

Whipple was raised Presbyterian but became an Episcopalian in large part due to the influence of his grandparents and future wife, Cornelia. He was ordained a priest in 1850 and served congregations in New York and Chicago. His care for the poor and marginalized was evident early on in his ordained ministry. He planted a church, the first free church, in the South Side of Chicago in 1857. He recruited all manner of people to come to his new church plant, ranging from Swedish immigrants to derelicts, and he was even known to recruit people to come to visit his parish upon their parole at the many services he led at the local prison.

In 1859, he was elected Bishop of Minnesota, a position he held until his death some 40 years hence. His first pastoral visit of his diocese began in December of that year and included visits to all the Ojibwe missions that the Diocese supported. In the spring of 1860, he established his see in Faribault, MN, and moved his family there. Also in his first year, he started a massive capital campaign and incorporated Seabury Divinity School as a place to train local clergy, as well as youth ministry in the form of a boys' and girls' boarding/prep school.
He also immediately called for reform of the US Indian system, some of his ideas being later adapted into what is now knows as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Needless to say, his strong voice in support of Indian missions and reform established him many enemies among the whites in Minnesota. Some of his fellows in the US House of Bishops publically dismissed him as a lunatic and fanatic from the floor of the House of Bishops, often with him conveniently not being in attendance to defend himself. After the Dakota uprising in Minnesota in 1862, he was publically denigrated in many of the area publications for his support of amnesty to the Native Americans. He called for no executions or mass deportations of the Dakota. He even went so far as to write to the US President directly in intervene, the exact text of which can be found here.

Whipple was also a man of ecumenical convictions, urging that the Church's task was to "preach Christ crucified" and that in house quarrels hindered this mission. He pled for unity among all branches of the Episcopal and Anglican communions, and for harmonious relations among members of all Christian denominations. The most touching thing he did to heal the rift created in the House of Bishops due to the American War between the States. The following is an excerpt from one of the eulogies given by the Rev. William Cox Pope at Whipple's funeral in 1901:

"To his Diocesan Council, in 1861, he said, "While for myself I stand aside for no man as truer to his country, no man shall rob my heart of the memory of other days. It was in a southern city I was consecrated as your bishop. The bishops of North and South, of East and West, stood side by side, heart beating unto heart, as they laid holy hands on my head in consecration. Where now there are only hatred and fierce passions, the tramp of soldiery, and the din of arms, there was then such love as made hearts tender as a woman's. Others may forget; I shall not, but day by day pray God that He will make us one again in love."
"His prayer was heard. At the end of the war the Presiding Bishop wrote to the Southern bishops, inviting them to the General Convention which met in Philadelphia, October, 1865. Only the Bishop of North Carolina was present at the opening service, and took his seat in the congregation, During the service he was seen by some of the bishops, who went down in their robes of office and compelled him; to take his place among them in the chancel. When he and the Bishop of Arkansas sent word asking on what terms they would be received in the House of Bishops, they were asked, in reply, "to trust to the love and honor of their brethren." So the breach between North and South was healed."

To learn more about Bishop Whipple, the town of Faribault, MN, has a section of their website devoted to him.

Sometimes it is difficult to wade through the heavy handed Victorian era hagiographies of famous men. Whipple was a man of incredible missionary zeal, both as a priest and as a bishop. I think we can learn a lot from his life and example, particularly if we look at his words and teachings, some of which still survive. My next entry in this series will be more precisely to the point of the theme: Missionary Theology and the Episcopal Church.

Please stay tuned.

1 comment:

TLF+ said...

I'm so glad you are doing this in parts. There is so much rich fare to savor! Thanks for these contributions.