Project Canterbury

History of the Church of the Ascension, Chicago, Illinois 1857-1982

By George C. Giles, Jr.

Aberdeen, South Dakota: North Plains Press, 1984.

Introduction: The Oxford Movement and the Midwest

The Oxford Movement, which began some 150 years ago, was a cry for religious renewal within the Church of England. It was in large part a Catholic revival, a convincing effort to link the Church of Thomas Cranmer, Matthew Parker, and Richard Hooker with the Holy Catholic Church that had been founded by Jesus Christ and had served as the vessel of truth over the centuries. As W. J. Sparrow Simpson observed, "The Movement has inspired new life in a dying Church. It has restored the Catholic tradition into a communion in which it was almost lost." The Oxford Movement was also a plea by inspired men and women for personal holiness, love, and discipline. Born of the Romantic Era, it was, wrote Owen Chadwick, "an impulse of the heart and the conscience, not an inquiry of the head." It was "a movement of pastoral and moral care."

By 1833 the Church of England seemed to be approaching extinction. For one thing, the Industrial Revolution had reduced villages to tiny hamlets, and little provision had been made for the construction of new churches in the teeming cities. While the growing population shifted toward the urban and industrial centers of the Midlands and the North, the Church did not follow. Alan D. Gilbert has noted, "it is certain that in an expanding society Anglicanism had lost touch, as a religious institution, with very large sections of the population."

Moreover, urbanization had begun to secularize the English working class. Material progress, the frantic struggle for economic and social mobility, the anonymity of big cities, the destruction of religion as a communal activity, the distractions and pleasures of urban life all led to religious indifference. Only the Methodists, and then only briefly, had made much of an impact in urban centers.

Then too, Anglicanism appeared to be class-bound. The Church had vast wealth and a university educated clergy that often could not communicate effectively with the average men and women. Many bishops and parsons were identified by the populace with George IV and the Tory governments that had ruled England since the end of the Napoleonic wars. Anglicanism was often thought of by the masses--when it was thought of at all--as the Tory Party at prayer. Untold numbers of English working men went their entire lives without setting foot inside a church, many out of class resentments.

Clergymen at the time were frequently torpid and disinterested. In large part this was due to the debilitating impact of the Enlightenment. The Age of Reason's faith in science, education, progress, and the inherent goodness of mankind influenced a great many literate people in the western world and seemed to overwhelm Anglicanism. The supernatural aspects of the Christian faith now seemed embarrassing and out of date. The miracles on which the religion rests were often thought to be merely primitive explanations or myths.

The Church of England was also under severe attack by 1833. Protestant Nonconformity was booming. The Irish Roman Catholics were rapidly increasing in number. Critics were calling for an end to Church rates and tithes, by which every English household was forced to support the established Church. They also sought to sweep away the laws and customs by which the British were christened, married, and buried in the Church of England.

In 1828 Dissenters and Roman Catholics were permitted to hold public office. A year later Roman Catholics were admitted to Parliament, where they might work more directly against the Church. The Reform Act of 1832 weakened Tory power and led to fears that the Whigs might undertake drastic revisions of Church policy. As Sheridan Gilley has written, "In the 1820s . . . the whole rickety structure seemed on the point of collapse, as Dissenters, papists and radicals pressed home their well-founded argument that the Church of England had lost her historic role as the Church of the English people." Gilley added, "Never, it seemed, did so many Englishmen wish to strangle their king with the entrails of the Archbishop of Canterbury."

The staunchest defenders of the Church were called High Churchmen. These clergymen had close ties to the Tory establishment, believed in Apostolic Succession, possessed a strong interest in the Church Fathers, and were moderately receptive to such liturgical developments as the surplice and the sign of the cross. Still, High Church services were extremely formal, austere, and unemotional. No appeal was made through music, color, or poetry. The clergymen were referred to as "high and dry," "stiff," and "dry to the point of lifelessness." As Gilley observed, "High Church fastidiousness was as much a matter of culture as of religion; as a mark of refinement, it was a badge of social class. ..." And yet the Oxford Movement would grow within the High Church party, transforming it over the course of several decades.

John Keble (1792-1866) was the second son of a Tory High Churchman. After graduating from Oxford in 1810 with an outstanding academic record, he settled down to the life of a quiet, rural parson. A meek, self-effacing, and saintly man, Keble published a popular book of verses in 1827 entitled The Christian Year. It illustrates his indebtedness to the Romanticism of the early 19th century and is thought by some to mark the beginning of the Oxford Movement. His Assize Sermon "National Apostasy," delivered at Oxford on July 14, 1833, was a High Church attack upon the Whig government's decision to suppress ten Irish bishoprics. To John Henry Newman, however, the sermon marked the beginning of the Movement, and this date has been widely accepted.

Newman (1801-90) had been a pious Evangelical as a young man. After Oxford he was ordained a deacon and named University preacher. Gifted with a magnetic personality and keen intellect, he quickly became the chief organizer and leader of the Oxford Movement. Among Newman's many achievements was the initiation of the Tracts for the Times. He wrote 24 of the 90 essays, distributed widely throughout England to present the Movement's views. His Tract 90, published in 1841, caused an uproar when it appeared to be overly sympathetic to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1845 Newman converted to Rome and soon became a priest. This was a severe blow to the Movement, but there were others eager to carry on the struggle.

Edward B. Pusey (1800-82) had met Keble and Newman at Oxford. In 1828 he was named a professor of Hebrew at the University and canon of Christ Church. He became fully associated with the "Tractarians" in 1835-36 and contributed several articles to their series. Even before Newman's departure, this gentle, generous, holy man became the best known figure in the Oxford Movement, whose adherents became known in some circles as "Puseyites."

In its fullness there were seven basic themes of the Oxford Movement. The first was the familiar assertion that the Church of England was Catholic. This fundamental principle of the Movement emphasized the ancient and undivided Church as the model in doctrine, liturgy, and devotion. Keble, Newman, Pusey and the others not only read the early Church Fathers to support their case but paid careful attention to the teachings of the Anglican divines of the High Church tradition in the late 16th and the 17th centuries, men like Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, George Bull, and William Laud. These outstanding Christian thinkers had enjoyed a new understanding of the early Church, thanks to modern scholarship, and were convinced that the evidence favored the Catholic rather than Protestant position on the nature of Anglicanism. Both groups of High Churchmen in their different centuries saw the Church as a visible, divinely ordained institution which enjoyed an authority beyond state control.

Secondly, the Oxford Fathers taught Apostolic Succession. The Tractarians wrote more about Holy Orders than any other topic. Pusey saw the Episcopacy as "God's ordinance." Apostolic Succession was viewed, to use Frances Swinford's words, as "the indispensable safeguard of the integrity of the sacraments." It was no accident that the Oxford Fathers promoted better training for priests. Priests were not mere ministers; their authority within the Catholic Church was special and their responsibilities were profound.

Thirdly, the Movement emphasized the sacramental life. Its proponents stressed the centrality of the Eucharist, taught the Real Presence, and encouraged frequent communions. They preached regeneration in baptism and voluntary confession. They taught sanctification as well as justification. Faith in Jesus Christ was necessary for salvation; but the Christian was also required to engage in that daily battle to die to one's self and reflect the love of God for mankind.

The Oxford Movement also stressed reverence and devotion in worship. Ritualism began to appear a few years after Keble's Assize Sermon. It was a somewhat broader effort than many Tractarians envisioned, and Pusey and others vigorously opposed it. Still, the ritualists quickly became identified with the Movement, and they contributed greatly to its effectiveness. George De Mille has written, "Ceremonial, rightly understood, is only the translation into visible symbols of catholic doctrine. ..." Owen Chadwick said of the ritualistic Cambridge Camden Society, founded in 1839: "It was another part of that almost universal turning from the head towards the heart. Its roots lay in the desire to turn the churches into houses of prayer and devotion, where men could let their hearts go outward and upward in worship, instead of preaching-houses where their minds would be argued into an assent to creeds or to moral duties."

Among other things, ritualists sought stone altars facing eastward, with flowers, candles, crosses, and crucifixes; Gothic architecture; eucharistic vestments; incense; vested choirs; chanting and hymnody; processionals; lay servers; daily services; devotions to Mary and the Saints; open and public reservation of the Blessed Sacrament; prayers for the dead; fasting communions; ablutions; retreats; and compulsory auricular confession. It was clear as early as the 1840s that a significant part of the Oxford Movement had rediscovered the Medieval Church as well as the primitive Church.

The Oxford Fathers also reintroduced Monastic Orders to the Church of England. W. J. Sparrow Simpson has observed, "Wherever Catholicism prevails Monasticism appears. This has been the case both in the East and in the West. Community life is a persistent characteristic of Christendom. This is natural, since Christianity is founded in Sacrifice, the greatest, most awful, sacrifice ever conceived, and Monasticism is a noble expression of the sacrificial spirit." Early examples included Newman's monastery at Littlemore (1842), Pusey's Devenport Community (1845), John Mason Neale's Sisterhood of St. Margaret (1854), and R. M. Benson's Society of St. John the Evangelist (1866).

After 1850 the Oxford Movement also emphasized a strong social commitment. Rented pews were abolished--an assault upon that deadly union between Christianity and the upper classes. Churches such as St. Alban-Holborn, St. Peter's-London Docks, and St. Agatha's-Landport made heroic efforts to serve the poor. Hospitals and other social institutions were founded.

Lastly, the Oxford Movement revealed an admirable missionary zeal, both in domestic and foreign fields. This was inherited from the Evangelicals, who had preceded the Tractarians by several decades and were also devoted to reviving the Church of England, weighted down with apathy, heresy, and worldliness.


In the course of celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Oxford Movement in 1983, many historians overlooked an interesting and important fact: there was a Catholic movement in the United States that preceded the events in England.

By the end of the 18th century the Church in America was in severe decline. Support for the English in the Revolution had tarred many Anglicans with treason, and thousands of Loyalists had fled to Canada. The Enlightenment had led to the watering down of Christian truths. Services were drab. Communion was held perhaps once every three months. The union of church and state was broken in Virginia in 1802, leaving three-fourths of the parishes abandoned. A decade later there were only 13 priests in the state.

Only in New England was the picture at all bright. A number of "Connecticut Converts" such as President Cutler of Yale had, through their reading, become convinced that the Church of England was part of the Catholic Church. America's first bishop, Samuel Seabury (1729-96), was of the same belief. The son of a Connecticut convert, he had been consecrated in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1784 by the non-jurors, who were intensely conscious of their Catholic roots. Seabury preached the Real Presence and regeneration in baptism. He was the first bishop in the Anglican Church to wear a mitre. He helped place a Catholic canon of the Eucharist into the prayer book of 1804.

John Henry Hobart (1775-1830), the bishop of New York from 1811 to 1830, was a powerful, highly influential leader of the High Church outlook in America. He preached Apostolic Succession, the sacramental life, prayers for the dead, and daily offices. In 1822 he founded General Theological Seminary, which became the center of High Church teaching. He stressed missionary work and was personally active in western New York and Wisconsin.

Hobart had a number of disciples who were to spread his High Church views throughout the country. Jackson Kemper, George Washington Doane, William Whittingham, the younger Samuel Seabury, Levi Ives, and Benjamin and Henry Onderdonk became bishops. By 1840 High Churchmanship was a dominant force in the American Church. Of the 19 men in the House of Bishops that year, 14 were High Churchmen of sorts and 6 had been Hobart students.

The Tracts for the Times taught little that was new to Americans. Hobart's followers condemned Newman's Tract 90 as Papist. A number of younger men, however, who were moving in the direction of ritualism, were inspired by it. By 1840 the High Church party was split over the question of ritual. Low Churchmen, at the same time, were beginning to attack the entire Catholic position. The General Convention of 1844 cooled things down considerably by declaring toleration to be Church policy.

Ritualism in America, as well as High Churchmanship, preceded Keble's Assize Sermon. William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877) was the father of this movement. In 1827 this self-proclaimed "Evangelical Catholic" founded a school for boys at Flushing, Long Island, where ritualism flourished. James Lloyd Breck was greatly influenced by his attendance at the Flushing institute, as was Milo Mahan, a later ritualist scholar at General Theological Seminary. In 1845 Muhlenberg founded the Church of the Holy Communion in New York, the first parish in the city to have free pews, and one of the first to offer a weekly communion.

A number of important churches were created in the 19th century where ritualism could be found: St. James, Chicago (1834); the Church of the Holy Cross, Troy, New York (1844); the Church of the Advent, Boston (1844); Trinity Church, New York (1846); St. Stephen's, Providence, New York (1849); the Church of the Transfiguration, New York (1850); St. Clement's, Philadelphia (1855); the Church of the Ascension, Chicago (1857); St. Alban's, New York (1865); the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York (1870), the most famous ritualist church in America; and St. Ignatius, New York (1871).

Muhlenberg's Sisterhood of the Holy Communion (1845-63) paved the way for women's religious orders in this country. It was followed by the Community of St. Mary (1865), the Sisterhood of St. Margaret (1873), the Community of St. John Baptist (1881), and the Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity (1882). Monastic institutions for men made little headway in the 19th century. The Nashotah House effort lasted only a few years, 1842-50. The Order of the Holy Cross, founded by James Huntington in 1884, had only two members by 1894.

Ritualism had a distinguished group of champions, including James De Koven; Morgan Dix, of Trinity Church, New York; Milo Mahan; John Henry Hopkins, Jr., founder of the influential The Church Journal (1853); and Ferdinand C. Ewer, of Christ Church, New York, the best theologian of the entire High Church party. Struggles over ritualism were frequent and intense. The major battles were fought in the General Conventions of 1868, 1871, and 1874. A canon on ritual uniformity was passed in 1874 forbidding eucharistic adoration. It was largely ignored, however, and was quietly dropped in 1904. Tolerance prevailed after 1874, and a year later ritualists began to be elected bishops.


Many outstanding bishops contributed to the formation of Catholic dioceses in the Midwest. The list includes Jackson Kemper and Isaac Lea Nicholson in Milwaukee; John Henry Hobart Brown, Charles Grafton, and Reginald Weller in Fond du Lac; Frank E. Wilson of Eau Claire; Henry J. Whitehouse and William E. McLaren in Illinois; George F. Seymour and Edward William Osborne in Springfield; Charles Palmerston Anderson in Chicago; Alexander Burgess and M. Edward Fawcett in Quincy; John Hazen White in Northern Indiana; Robert Nelson Spencer in West Missouri; Henry Benjamin Whipple in Minnesota; and Sheldon M. Griswold in the missionary diocese of Salina (now Western Kansas). Thousands of priests, deacons, and laymen, of course, were also responsible for planting the seeds of the Catholic faith.

In addition, the importance of Nashotah House must be acknowledged, for despite its small size this intensely Catholic seminary has made a major impact on the Church in the Midwest and elsewhere. Seabury Seminary also contributed to Catholic Churchmanship, as did Western Theological Seminary, the long-time home of theologian Francis J. Hall. The Living Church was founded in 1878 and has remained a highly visible voice of Anglo-Catholicism.


Each year the diocese of Milwaukee has a Three Saints Festival, designed to honor three of the most important figures in the Catholic movement, both in the Midwest and in the entire Episcopal Church. David Jackson Kemper, James Lloyd Breck, and James DeKoven were Churchmen whose purity of character, selfless devotion, and exemplary zeal and energy should inspire today's Anglo-Catholics to resist the world, cling to the historic faith, and do everything in their power to serve Jesus Christ. Space does not permit the full retelling of their heroic histories. Instead, let us examine two characteristics of the Oxford Movement each man revealed.

Donald Jackson Kemper (1789-1870) was, as we have seen, a High Churchman. As a student at Columbia College, and for a year after his graduation, he studied privately with John Henry Hobart, then at New York's Trinity Church. Like his mentor, Kemper was never a ritualist. In 1866 he joined a number of High Churchmen in condemning altar candles, incense, reverences to the altar or to the elements, and eucharistic vestments. Moreover, like virtually all of the High Churchmen, Kemper was hostile toward the Roman Catholic Church. He deplored the concept of transubstantiation and opposed prayers to the Saints. When theorizing about a separate diocese of Fond du Lac in 1868 he referred to "the Reformed Catholic Church," of which he considered himself a member.

Kemper also, of course, is a superior example of the missionary emphasis within the Catholic movement. In 1835, following two decades as a deacon and priest in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, he was consecrated the Episcopal Church's first missionary bishop. Three years later he became "Missionary Bishop of the Northwest," and roamed the vast territories of Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Iowa. At one point he still found time to travel to the South and assist the bishop of Tennessee. In a four-month period Kemper visited all of the parishes in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

In 1840, on one of his journeys to the East Coast to plead for missionaries, Kemper recruited three young seminarians named Breck, Adams, and Hobart, who were soon instrumental in the creation of Nashotah House. Kemper's ties to Wisconsin were strengthened in 1854 when he was elected bishop of Wisconsin. Because of his desire to continue as missionary bishop, he did not restrict himself to the new State until 1859, when he was 70 years old. He was active until his retirement a decade later.

Data can only suggest Kemper's achievements in the Midwest. He organized six dioceses (in territory that would later become twelve dioceses), consecrated nearly 100 churches, ordained over 200 priests and deacons, confirmed nearly 10,000 people, and traveled some 300,000 miles for his Lord. Kemper served 65 years at the altar, nearly 35 as a bishop.

James Lloyd Breck (1818-76) was a ritualist. He founded Nashotah House in 1842 with strict monastic ideals in mind. In a letter of 1845, he admitted: "... as Brother Adams has said of me, that I should have been born 500 years earlier. And such, in truth, has all along been the craving of my heart, not for the present, not for the future, but the past, though I would date it a little earlier than the period that the above time would lead me back." Still, Breck had little use for his Roman competitors on the frontier. As he wrote, "There is a Catholicity further back than Rome; and who can forbid us this, if we can become worthy of it?"

Breck toiled for 36 years as a frontier missionary. During the early 1840s he traveled all over eastern Wisconsin, in all seasons, to spread the Gospel. From October 1, 1842 to January 1, 1843 he rode 1,851 miles on horseback and walked 756 miles. That is a rate of 10,000 miles a year.

Breck left Nashotah in 1850 when internal dissension defeated his monastic aspirations. He went to Minnesota and became a missionary to the Indians. Suffering and hardship were daily companions, but Breck made impressive gains. He created several parishes, built Seabury Seminary in Faribault, and baptized some 400 people. He frequently appealed to friends and relatives in the East for prayer and financial assistance, and his revealing letters tell us much about his life and times. In 1866 he wrote to his brother, "When you consider that I have been 25 years a frontier Missionary, and have never laid up a dollar or secured a foot of land for myself, you will not hesitate to appeal to your dear people to aid us."

In 1867 Breck moved on to California, landing in Benecia, 30 miles east of San Francisco. Here he built two boarding schools and a missionary college, founded several parishes, edited a magazine, and traveled extensively preaching the Gospel. At his death, a clergyman who knew him well wrote, "And if ever man needed rest from labor, surely that man was J. Lloyd Breck. He was literally worn out with work, and sunk exhausted into the grave; and if ever man will receive a reward for work well done in the service of his Master, surely the richest crown of glory will bedeck the brow of him who was in the truest sense 'faithful unto death.' "

James DeKoven (1831-79) has been called by Frederick Cook Morehouse "the greatest product of the American Church during the century." DeKoven earned this title in large part because of his extraordinary personal holiness and devotion to pastoral care. From the time, as a seminarian at General, when he found a "Ragged School" for the children of the New York streets, through his years at Nashotah House and Racine College, De Koven exemplified the highest Christian principles. A Chicago priest said in a memorial service of 1879:

Dr. DeKoven was not only one of the most brilliant orators, one of the finest scholars, one of the most clear debaters in the Church, but he was one of the holiest, one of the saintliest of all her sons. His life was lived upon a very lofty plane, far above the ordinary level. He was not an ascetic; he was not gloomy, but he conveyed even to the chance observer the impression of great personal holiness. He spent hours upon his knees, and from his childhood to his grave he was singularly free from even what are called venial sins. But with this very holy and pure life there was no spiritual pride, no assumption of superior worthiness. When you add to all this a thoroughly charming manner, a perfect culture, an intimate knowledge of all the graces of polite society, and a personal magnetism which gave him wonderful power over the young men under his care, who without exception idolized him, the greatness of the loss is overpowering.

The ample record of DeKoven's career makes clear that this is not mere Victorian funeral oratory.

DeKoven is best known, of course, as the defender of ritualism in the Protestant Episcopal Church, the champion of the Real Presence, eucharistic adoration, confession, Sisterhoods, incense, vestments, and the like. He was the central figure in the Catholic movement during the 1860s and 1870s, when militant Low Churchmen were determined to stamp out what they thought to be Papist excesses. In the General Conventions of 1868, 1871, 1874, and 1877 DeKoven's compelling oratory, more than anything else, persuaded the Church to tolerate what has today become commonplace. He paid a price for this success: five times he was nominated or elected bishop and met defeat.

In the General Convention of 1871 DeKoven made a provocative reply to the charge that ritualists were courting Rome.

We, too, are Protestant in certain senses; we disbelieve in the supremacy of the Pope; we disbelieve in his infallibility; we disbelieve in the shutting up of Scripture in a tongue not understanded of the people; we believe in a Liturgy that can be read and known of all men; we do not believe in a compulsory celibacy; we do not believe in enforced confession; we only believe in the Grand Catholic doctrines . . . The ceremonies of the broad world, the ceremonies that typify Christ, the ceremonies that tell of Him, the ceremonies that teach me to believe, not in any material Presence, but in Him whom by faith I see: these, these shall be the ceremonies of our branch of the Catholic Church of Christ.

In an address to the Milwaukee Diocesan Convention of 1874 De Koven returned to this theme with words that all Episcopalians should engrave on their hearts:

Do we need to warn our people against Confession, Eucharistical Adoration, and too much reverence? Is Milwaukee full of penitents? Are the rural districts of Wisconsin inclined to superstition? ... I know that the chief dangers of the day do not lie in too many confessions, or overwrought devotion, or too high an appreciation of the Sacraments of the Church. They are rather to be found in unbelief and sin, in corruption and dishonor, in covetousness, lust and irreverence, in inaction, and stagnation, and quaking timidity, and ye all know it!

Thomas C. Reeves
Diocese of Milwaukee

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