Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Tireless Missionary Bishop of the Northwest

Six years after the War of Independence, on Christmas Eve in 1789, in the small up-state New York Hudson River valley town of Pleasant Valley, Jackson Kemper was born. His parents had fled New York City to escape a smallpox epidemic. His grandfather was an immigrant from Germany; his father, Daniel Kemper, from Canada, had been a colonel in the American Revolutionary army, serving as aide-de-camp to General George Washington at the battles of Germantown and Monmouth. His mother, Elizabeth Marius Kemper, was a descendant of well-known families of the Dutch New Amsterdam era.  The Kempers were members of Trinity Church, Wall Street, where Kemper was baptized by Bishop Benjamin Moore with the forename “David", which he dropped while in college.

Kemper entered Columbia College at the age of 15 and graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1809, after which he spent a year in theological training with Bishop Moore and The Rev. John Henry Hobart. Kemper was ordained deacon by Bishop William White two years later at the age of 21, and was priested in 1814.  He was immediately called as a curate at the United Parishes of Philadelphia, including historic Christ Church, where Bishop White was rector, in addition to being the Bishop of Pennsylvania. Kemper remained there for twenty years.

In 1812 and again in 1814 he was sent on “missionary tours” of western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and eastern Ohio, and in many of these places he was the first to hold liturgical services. These missionary trips were the only “vacations” Kemper ever took during his entire ministry.

In 1816 Jackson Kemper married Jerusha Lyman, who died only two years later. In 1819 he married Ann Relf, daughter of a wealthy family of Philadelphia, who bore him a daughter and two sons. In 1831, at Ann's urging, Kemper accepted a call as rector of Saint Paul’s Church, Norwalk, CT, only to lose his second wife, Ann, to death a year later.

In the early 1800’s, the Episcopal Church in America was struggling out of its infancy and beginning to consider its responsibilities for mission in the newly developing nation. In 1820 the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society was constituted. Jackson Kemper was one of the original patrons of the society, and traveled widely to visit and evaluate
missionary efforts. 

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church of 1835 decided to appoint bishops to direct the Church's future
missionary work in the expanding west. Among them, Kemper, with missionary experience in western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and eastern Ohio, was elected unanimously as the first Missionary Bishop in the Episcopal Church: with responsibility for what now comprises the states of Indiana and Missouri. His jurisdiction eventually included what are now the states of Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota.

Jackson Kemper was consecrated bishop on September 25, 1835 at Saint Peter’s Church, Philadelphia. Bishops
William White, Richard Channing Moore, and Philander Chase served as consecrators.  New Jersey Bishop George Washington Doane, “
the rankest Puseyite in the country”, as he'd been called, preached at the consecration.  The
final words of his sermon were: "
Go, bear before a ruined world the Savior's bleeding Cross. Go, feed with the bread from heaven the Savior's hungering Church. Go, thrice-beloved, go, and God the Lord go with you!"

With these words ringing in his ears, and leaving his three children with his mother-in-law in Philadelphia, Bishop Kemper set out immediately, taking up residence in Missouri, where he became nominal rector of Christ Church, Saint Louis. In the winter of 1835 he supplied in Illinois for Bishop Chase, who was in England. Kemper soon discovered that men from what was then called “the West” were not at all inclined, and often couldn't afford, to return to the East Coast for a theological education.  Two years after his arrival, in 1837, the bishop founded a college just outside of Saint Louis, which friends in his absence named “Kemper College”. This made the Kemper so self-conscious and embarrassed to appeal for funds for the school, that the college eventually closed eight years later for lack of financial support.

In 1838, Kemper was formally made bishop of the entire Northwest Territory, later the states of Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas. At the request of Bishop Otey who was disabled by illness, Kemper also made an episcopal visitation of all the states along the Mississippi, the Gulf Coast, and the southern Atlantic Coast.

In the same year, he was chosen as bishop of Maryland in a strongly contested and chaotic election.  Having given the call serious consideration, he nevertheless declined to accept. His immediate concern was “inventing” a new model of episcopacy, one that had never been practiced by an Anglican bishop anywhere before. There were few, if any,  precedents on which to depend or to look to for guidance. Kemper called himself the “dray horse” of the Church, finding himself separated so much from his loving family who remained in the East.   He often saw them only on
Christmas: the one day out of the year which he reserved for himself.

Bishop Kemper travelled by water whenever possible, but he often had to resort to stagecoach or horseback. He carried all his possessions in his saddlebags: vestments, Bible, Prayer Book, chalice and paten, and personal items.

In 1846 Kemper moved his residence to a house only a half-mile from Nashotah House in Wisconsin.  No longer a homeless vagabond, he was now able to bring his two unmarried sisters and his daughter to live with him. His son Lewis was by then a student at Nashotah House, preparing for ordination.

Bishop Kemper’s life as a missionary is almost inconceivable to us today. He traveled from the shores of Lake Superior to the Gulf of Mexico: by steamboat, on horseback, by stagecoach, and often on foot. He slept in the open or on the hard floor of a remote hunter’s cabin or in an Indian wigwam. In one instance, he traveled for four days in order to confirm a young person in northern Wisconsin. He organized six dioceses, consecrated nearly a hundred churches, ordained over two hundred priests and deacons, and confirmed almost 10,000 souls. He lobbied,  unsuccessfully, in the East for a German translation of the
Book of Common Prayer to use in his ministry to German immigrants.  Pleased with the Winnebago mission at Oneida in Wisconsin, he pressed for further work with Native Americans: “…why should there not be a hundred similar congregations among the red race of this country?” Bishop Kemper later confirmed five people of the Ojibwe nation, among them John Anmegahbowk Johnson, now commemorated on June 12 in the Episcopal Church's liturgical calendar as Enmegahbowh, the first Native American Episcopal priest.

In the summer of 1847, while visiting parishes in Indiana, he was struck down with an attack of malaria so serious that his physician insisted he return to the East immediately for treatment.  In November, however, he was back in Wisconsin to resume his work once again. In the very hot summer of 1856, on a trip to Nebraska and Kansas, through lack of fresh and wholesome food, Bishop Kemper contracted land scurvy, and, at 67, was afterwards never as strong or as well as before. From then on he was subject to what his daughter described as “lost turns”: a feeling of vagueness, vertigo, and temporary loss of consciousness.

In 1847 he was elected to be first Bishop of the new Diocese of Wisconsin, but he declined. Later, in 1859, after Kemper had retired from missionary work, he was immediately elected for the second time to the Diocese of Wisconsin, and this time he accepted, remaining in that office until his death.  He had finally been restored to his family who had moved west to be with him.

During the last ten years of his life, Bishop Kemper found himself embroiled in the growing churchmanship battles. The Catholic revival in the Episcopal Church, in which Kemper had taken a strong part, had begun to take on an Anglo-Catholic and ritualistic color, and Kemper was somewhat bewildered by it all. In 1867, concerned over the growing ritualism, he and two other bishops drafted a Declaration on Ritualism which stated in part, “…We therefore consider that in this particular National Church any attempt to introduce into the public worship of Almighty God usages that have never been known, such as the use of incense, and the burning of lights in the order for Holy Communion; reverences to the Holy table or to the elements thereon;…the adoption of clerical habits hitherto unknown…is an innovation which violates the discipline of the Church.”  Kemper's group invited other bishops to sign the declaration, and eventually twenty-eight bishops did so.

During the Civil War, almost alone among the Episcopal bishops, Jackson Kemper chose not to speak about or promote the war. Many of his tiny mission stations suffered when the men were called up to service. Nashotah House seniors were threatened with the draft, and Kemper decided that, if necessary, he would ordain them in order to exempt them from military service. At the end of the war, he did compose a prayer of gratitude that was used throughout his jurisdictions, but he never gave in to national chauvinism or jingoistic patriotism. 

Some time in 1868, Kemper recounted that he happened to put his hand over one eye and was shocked to discover that the sight in the other eye was entirely gone. From then on, he gave up trying to read small print, and often had his family read to him. His memory of the middle part of his life began to be obscured, though memories of childhood and
early ministry came back clearly.

During these years, James DeKoven described the aging bishop thus: “Snow white are his locks [see photo above], and his face fair and beautiful. If ever there was a saint on earth or shall be in heaven it is he—a long life of the most simple-minded, pure-hearted missionary labor is now drawing to its close… He comes often to the college and stops a day or so, and his presence is a blessing.

Kemper lived through his eightieth birthday, and into 1870, but took to his bed on May 18. Two days later, Fr. DeKoven visited him and in leaving, begged the bishop’s blessing.  The old man began to ramble into the prayers of the ordination service. The next day he fell into a coma, and died three days later, on Tuesday, May 24.

Six bishops travelled from as far as Kentucky for his funeral at Nashotah House chapel and his burial in the seminary cemetery [see photo above]. Seventy clergy and two thousand lay people attended.  Jackson Kemper had been missionary bishop of a jurisdiction greater than any since the days of the Apostles. He had traveled more than 300,000
miles during the 35 years of his episcopate: more than St. Paul himself.  Bishop Kemper was eulogized in a sermon preached in 1882 by the Rev. Professor William Adams of Nashotah House: “[Bishop Kemper]
has always seemed to me to have been chosen and formed by the decree and power of God, for just such work as he had to do. He was kind-hearted and social in all his feelings; beneficent in the highest degree; sympathizing evermore with the sick and sorrowing. He was sweet in temper and pleasant in speech, and at the same time he was full of the weightiest business ability and of far-reaching wide-thoughted missionary plans. If there was ever a man framed and adapted for the work he had to do in this world, for the people among whom he had to labor, and also for the peculiar state of the country which was to be the sphere of his enterprise, it was Bishop Kemper, the Missionary Bishop of the Church in this region of the Northwest… A spotless, stainless, loving-hearted Bishop of the Church!” Bishop Talbot of Indiana summed it up well when he wrote: “No bishop in the line of our American episcopate has succeeded in concentrating upon himself more entirely than he, the love and veneration of the Church.

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