Project Canterbury












[Transcriber's note: Bishop Greer was in fact the eighth Bishop of New York. For a time, Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, who had served as Provisional Bishop from 1852-1854 in place of Bishop Onderdonk who was under suspension, was not considered in this numerical listing. A determination was made in later years that he should be so included.]

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008

WHEN we have lived for years in the glow of a friendship, it is not easy so to adjust our vision as to analyze and interpret our friend's character; and Bishop Greer's characteristics were as subtle as his character was fundamentally simple.

He was a typical West Virginian, an out of doors man, transplanted through a New England city to the high walls and concentrated life of this great metropolis. He was lifted from a home of simple piety through intellectual struggles to a new faith, but still fundamentally simple.

David Hummell Greer was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1844. From his merchant father he inherited his sweet and gentle nature; from his mother his strong determination, active temperament and evangelical piety. In his early ministry he was called to the parish in Wheeling where his mother's brother and father had been rectors. His mother was wont to say that she "prayed David into the ministry,"--a remark which reveals the secret power of his home.

Graduating from Washington College, Pennsylvania, at eighteen years of age, he read law for a while, and then began his theological study in Bexley Hall, Gambier, Ohio. Fifty years later, he took me through the old hall and his bedroom. We walked through the grove, and he told the students about Gambier life of half a century before. He was Rector at Clarkesburg, West Virginia, at twenty-two, and being under canonical age, was held back a year from ordination to the Priesthood. At twenty-four years of age he was Rector of Trinity Church, Covington, Kentucky, and three years later was under consideration for their rectorship by some of the leading parishes of the Church.

If in this address I seem to thrust into undue prominence my personal associations with Greer, it is because I can thus most vividly interpret him: and each of you by the memory of your similar associations will apply your own interpretations.

My memory runs back to the spring of 1872, over forty-seven years ago, when I first saw Greer and heard him preach. I had known of him through my cousin, Arthur Lawrence, who was his fellow-student and intimate friend at Gambier. The Civil War had broken up for the time the Seminary at Alexandria, and several young men of promise had therefore gathered at Bexley Hall. The atmosphere was saturated with evangelical [2/3] piety, and a mystic faith, introspective and very insistent upon habits of personal religion. The Rev. Dr. Bancroft, a man of intense and rather self-centred piety, became the mentor and leader of these young men. The emotional nature of Greer responded with intense devotion. This phase of faith dominated him and made him a young preacher of power.

Meanwhile the Church was passing through a crisis.. The General Convention of 1871 had disappointed the evangelicals. The word "regenerate" was not erased from the Office of Baptism, and, to quote my predecessor, Bishop Eastburn, the Convention had refused to take "decisive measures against the tawdry ceremonialism which has invaded so many houses of worship, and has shown no hostility to these popish abominations." The movement towards the inauguration of the Reformed Episcopal Church was on foot, and the Rev. Dr. Nicholson, an eloquent preacher, Rector of St. Paul's Church, Boston, and later a Bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church, resigned his rectorship.

Bishop Eastburn in his next Convention address extolled Dr. Nicholson, whose sermons "delivered so explicit, uniform and powerful a testimony against that self-styled wisdom of this age, which professes to have got beyond the 'old Commandment,' and with vain conceit, exults in its deliverance from the thraldom of that unchangeable plan of salvation which is revealed in the Scriptures." He closed his address with the exclamation, "May the good God, in His gracious providence, send us another in his place like-minded to him."

The Vestry of St. Paul's turned to the young and distant Rector in Kentucky. He preached one Sunday as a candidate. My cousin believed in him as a man of high promise, and asked me to go and hear him. I can see him now in the pulpit, but hardly recognizable. The fashion of that day among some of the evangelicals was the wearing of a full chin beard. Dr. Bancroft wore such a beard, so did Dr. Nicholson, and so did the young Kentucky preacher, Mr. Greer. He did not receive the call to St. Paul's, and he always protested to me that he had the piety which Boston needed, but lacked the culture which the Bostonians demanded. Soon afterwards, he was preaching his pietistic, evangelical sermons in Grace Church, Providence: but not for long,--he was already touched by a new spirit.

The revolution in methods of thought, begun in Darwin's "Origin of the Species" and pressed later by Herbert Spencer and Huxley, had swept across New England and the Alleghanies, and in book and quarterly found its way to the library at Covington. As a boy, Greer had been as diligent in reading as he had been active in sport. He devoured the books in the Public Library. Fresh literature had drifted his way in college and at Gambier. The struggle between the old methods in philosophy and in the interpretation of life and of the Christian faith had been felt by [3/4] him. It was the consciousness of this struggle in the young preacher that was beginning to draw the young men and women of his parish to him. He used the ancient evangelical language for a while, but the new thought was seething up through it. By the time that he had reached Providence he was conscious that the issue must be fought out. Coleridge, Maurice and Robertson had fought it through, and Greer buckled on his armor. One looks back almost with envy at those glorious days. Faiths were lost by the thousands, faiths were gained. Tennyson's "In Memoriam" stands as a milepost; and the road was opened on which the army of truth and a surer faith was to march forward.

Greer was able and brilliant: he was intense, too. The last book that he read was usually the one that captured him, and he talked of it day after day. I remember Phillips Brooks saying, "How brilliant Greer is; but in his bondage to his last book he shows the lack of a broad and liberal education." True, but only partly so. Greer from West Virginia was passing rapidly through the phases of thought which Brooks in New England had been able to take at a moderate pace.

During the seventeen years, therefore, that he was in Providence, his transitions of thought, his fresh, modern and strong grasp of the faith were the same as those through which the young men and women of Providence were passing. Each Sunday as he entered the pulpit, his great congregation knew that he had a message for them which had first been wrought out in his own vivid experiences: they listened then with bated breath, as men and women in a fog listen for the sound of the lightship bell. The older people did not fully understand it all: they could not comprehend the new language. But the earnestness, sincerity and simplicity of the young man compelled their admiration. And when after some close and vigorous intellectual discussion, he applied his principles won through struggle to the Christian faith, giving a new conception of the Atonement and Resurrection, and gathering his reserve emotion, kindled the whole faith with a glow of light and love, even the oldest listeners felt, though they did not yet comprehend, a new warmth and strength of faith. I have the impression that Greer, while he may not have been at his greatest as a preacher in Providence, was at times at his strongest; though immature, he was fighting for the faith, not with the power of a seasoned warrior, but with the thrill and ardor of youth. Therein has been the perennial fascination of Frederic Robertson.

Greer was always more than a preacher. His capacities as an administrator of originality began to find expression. The parish took on a modern form of organization. He was the dominant influence in the Orphanage and other institutions. When a young man turned to Greer for intellectual guidance, he felt [4/5] for the time that his problem was the only thing in the world that interested Greer; and the younger parsons flocked to his study for guidance in some deep doubt or question of faith, as also for advice upon the pettiest detail of parish life. But no detail which had human relations was petty to him.

Bishop Clark, once great in eloquence, unsurpassed in wit, and very wise, now an old man and ill, depended upon Greer as a sort of Coadjutor, and in civic matters the city turned to him for leadership. His last sermon to his people at Grace Church sums up the purpose of his preaching. He had given of his best intellectually in solving their problems, he had taught them theology and interpreted the creeds; but his last message was, "The ultimate aim of religion is not theology, is not creed or doctrine as such, is not religious conviction, but the reproduction of the life of Jesus Christ in men and the perpetuation through men of that life upon the earth."

He was loath to leave Providence for New York,--the great, restless city with its rich parish and habits of life so strange to him. He lingered on another Sunday, and asked me to come and be with him and preach, while he looked again at his people from the depth of the chancel. Mine was an uncomfortable task on that day, but one would do anything for his friendship. At the last moment he said he could not face the people, and with characteristic simplicity went to the service at the Orphanage and said the good-bye to the children which he had not dared to say in the church.

When Greer arrived in New York, at the age of forty-four, he was in his prime. His physique had been tested, though some bones had been broken by his love of sport and daring horsemanship; his nerves and emotions responded to his call. He then had great reserve power, and in his intellectual and spiritual wrestlings he had gained confidence, maturity and deep conviction. His reading and study continued, his love of philosophy and theology was sustained in the stress of city life, and he preached with more force and abandon than ever. The great mass of men and women who passed him on the street and sat before him in St. Bartholomew's called out the best in him. Their needs, sorrows and moral dangers appealed to him: his message became more human and practical.

The title of a volume of sermons gives us a keynote,--"From Things to God": "The Sanctification of the Common Things of Life." "The Christian must stand upon the earth, in the midst of earthly affairs, interests, duties, ambitions and pleasures, and yet must somehow find a pathway clear and open to things above the earth, to joys that do not perish, to hopes that do not die, to faiths that do not fail." He pressed home the immediateness of the Christian life. "Religion is a present thing". "Men shrink from confessing Christ, but they are Christ's now, his property [5/6] now, they belong to him now". Christ came "not to establish another among the innumerable religions, but to establish a new kingdom on earth, a kingdom of love, whose doctrine is love, whose polity is love, whose motive power is love, whose king is the King of Love." "Love does not divide; it unites; it draws people together." Like every prophet, he was a man of visions. I can remember as if of yesterday a sermon which he preached thirty years ago to Harvard students, "Young men see visions." He put it with great force in another sermon from the text, "Where there is no vision, the people perish," and his topic was, "The greatest benefactor of the human race is the man who gives the noblest visions to it."

He found at his coming to St. Bartholomew's a congregation very respectable, contented, and some of them very rich. There was no parish house, or reaching out by the parish to the great body of the people; there was comparatively little interest in the welfare of the poor, the problem of the tenement and other social conditions. The Gospel as Greer preached it, familiar as it sounds to us now, came with such freshness and force that the people of the Parish were aroused, they entered into a broader citizenship, and became more active in beneficent work. The great Parish House arose and began that ceaseless activity which has touched, invigorated and remade the lives of hundreds of thousands. His spirit spiritualized every committee meeting, every dance and sport. His visionary temper, his optimism and warm sympathy passed through the workers to the humblest visitor in the House: and he too gave of his best to the youngest child and vilest sinner. No man or woman was to him hopeless. I know one besotted man who entered the Rescue Mission over twenty-five years ago: he was redeemed: and that man with his faithful wife has for twenty-five years been appealing to, working with, and by God's Spirit redeeming men in our Church Rescue Mission in Boston. Think of it, almost every evening for a quarter of a century passed in this work: the patience, the hope! In such work Greer's soul goes marching on.

He ministered to the rich; they are God's children, no more, no less than the others; and under his inspiration they found the joy of giving, the satisfaction in stewardship and the interest in doing as well as giving. Idealist as he was, men learned to trust his practical judgment and made large gifts through him.

Immersed as he was in affairs, he was a pastor who as he made each call gave of himself, his sympathy and inspiration to that one person as if there were no other in the world. The glow of his presence was felt in the sick room long after he had left it.

He was above all a preacher. He read, studied and thought. He knew that the people were depending upon his message for comfort, strength and leadership: hence with great care he [6/7] prepared his sermons, writing out the most difficult passages again and again until he had mastered the sequence; then throwing all into the wastebasket and entering the pulpit without notes, he was free to speak the truth which was burning within him. And with what moving power he drove his message home! He was a great preacher in a great metropolis; and the city recognized it and so far as he had time and strength, the people of the city called him into public service.

His gentle spirit and broad sympathy endeared him to men and women of all churches, and what is sometimes more exceptional, to men and women of all schools of thought in his own Church. His temper was inclusive; so that when Bishop Potter asked for a Coadjutor, the Diocese turned to Greer and in his own Parish Church he was consecrated in 1904, at sixty years of age.

He was still vigorous, his figure that of a young man, and his industry intense; but the strain of over fifteen years had worn upon him. He had lived beyond the limit of his strength, and was often working against the warning of nerves and doctors. Glaucoma, which had blinded his mother for life, attacked first one eye and then the other with terrific pain. His eyesight was saved, but it was never the same, and he had received a physical shock which weakened his wonderful elasticity. His courage, cheer and industry were none the less. "You have had glaucoma", I once heard a distinguished physician say to Greer. "Yes". "In one eye, I suppose." "No, in both". "And you are at work?" "Doing full work", said Greer. "Well," was the answer, "You are the first man I ever met who has been operated on for glaucoma in both eyes who is doing full work."

He had been so intense in his devotion to his parish that the office of a Bishop seemed queer and strange to him: he did not know what to do. "Lawrence", he said to me, "What do you find to do in the job of a Bishop?" I answered, "If you don't find out soon, Greer, come around in six months and I will tell you." We all know how soon and completely he found himself in his work and office.

One thing he dreaded,--that he might show his episcopal dignity in some artificial way. He need not have feared: he was fundamentally simple and natural. The very day after his consecration he wrote me, "I feel a little strange and bewildered by it all, and cannot quite recognize my own identity, but I shall try to be in the new office just what I have always been."

With his usual tact and intensity, he changed his point of view from that of a Rector to that of a Bishop. Bishop Potter released to Greer the care of the city, and thus the city became his parish. Clergy and people who for the past years had been to him simply fellow citizens and churchmen now became his people, and he led them all with the affection and devotion of a good shepherd. [7/8] He was, however, only a Coadjutor, and during those years he never felt the freedom of action nor accepted the opportunity for leadership which was his before and afterwards. He was intensely busy, nevertheless, and as always entered into every detail of his work with thoroughness.

One characteristic, however, was his which became more and more clear as the years passed then and later, and as the wheels of organization and administration moved faster and seemed to others to absorb him:--he was interested not in the wheels but in the spirit within the wheels. No perfection of machinery, no dovetailing of parts, no nice adjustments, whether of churches, creeds or charities, nothing could quench his conviction that it was the spirit that mattered. Behind all theories of the Church, the Ministry, Apostolic Succession, was the test question,--"is there in them the spirit of Christ?" His speeches in the House of Bishops struck a spiritual note. He upheld ideals. Believing that the Church should keep in touch with her people, he pressed steadily for the opening of the doors of the House. His final tests in the selection of Missionary Bishops were vital piety and sincerity. He was in his chair faithfully at the Board of Missions for years, and did his part in the organization; but it was the spirit and life of the missionary and the spiritualizing of the heathen that stood before his vision.

He had no patience with an interpretation of the Christian faith which was merely rational and ethical, which emptied the creeds of all that he felt vital in the Christian faith, the Incarnation and Atonement. He was at the same time just as unsympathetic with an attitude which always turned to the past for leadership. He wrote me last year, "What our friends call 'Catholic tradition' so far as it is not a vague and nebulous thing, always seems to me to correspond in theology to the Ptolemaic theory in astronomy; and yet the world does move, and is moving today; and the statesmanship of the Church should show its appreciate understanding of that 'moving' and its wise interpretation of it. Otherwise it may find that it is fighting against God."

He dutifully attended the meetings of the Commission on Faith and Order, believing that with patience good results would come, but his real interest was in sympathetic and united prayer and service with men of every name; and the services in the Cathedral with brethren of other churches speaking a common Gospel was to him a great event in the construction of the Cathedral: it was a spiritual upbuilding. Mourned now by his Protestant brethren, he had walked as pall bearer by the side of the body of Archbishop Corrigan.

His conception of marriage was not as laws and canons made it, but as of a spiritual as well as bodily union, hence indissoluble. He esteemed highly organized charity, but it was the charity, the [8/9] love, that moved him to action. Sometimes in conversation one felt as if his feet were off the ground, and his thought detached from earthly interests, but when the time for action came, he swept down to service in an original and effective as well as practical way. He, like a true Bishop, so sympathized with everything that was spiritual in the city's life and activities, and with the spiritually minded men and women of all churches and no church that he was loved and trusted by them. Upon the death of Bishop Potter he took up the heavy burden of responsibility with courage and keen interest. Bronx House arose in response to his call, and later Hope Farm, which had been a fond dream, for he loved children and remembered the Orphanage at Providence.

He was racked with pain at times: his nerves often gave way: by twilight he was almost blind. But few knew of these things. His figure was that of a young man, his laughter hearty, and his whole manner full of cheer and saintly comradeship. "These good people little realize what a waste of vitality it is when I make a visitation up the river," he said to me. "Last week I took the train up the East Side for a West Side visitation. By some mistake the rector did not meet me. Darkness was coming on. I stood on the station platform as the train moved out, and then, hearing the ferry bell, I asked a stranger to guide me to the boat. He kindly did so, and left me sitting on a bench like a blind beggar. The rector met me on the other side; we had supper, service and a little chat, and I went to bed and stayed there sleepless, seeing nothing until morning, and then I went home knocked out for twenty-four hours. But don't mention this to anyone, please."

It was natural that he should press for a canon creating Suffragan Bishops, and the comfort and help which came to him through the devotion of him whom he selected as his Suffragan was very great and grateful. Few of us realize the pressure upon the Bishop of New York, for besides his Diocesan duties and work for the general Church, he is the one to whom all Missionary Bishops, clergy and layman from over the country turn for help and advice and even a social call. Bishop Potter had the faculty of aiding, but with great courtesy, such visitors to move through the office promptly. Greer could not; each one interested him; he could not cut short the pathetic story which unwound itself before the patient listener. He was a genius in his expression of friendliness to everyone. And to those who were near to him he was a most loyal friend. I can never forget the support which he gave me during the winters of the Church Pension Fund Campaign. He believed in the cause and worked for it; but there was nothing he was not ready to do for me. On the Sunday morning of my first address upon the subject in Grace Church, he gave up an important engagement to go with [9/10] me simply to sit in the chancel and thus show that he, the Bishop of New York, was behind the movement, and that he, David Greer, was behind his friend. Months ago, after a very severe illness, I passed through New York for the South. Although messages of sympathy had come from him to me continually, I wrote nothing of my trip to Greer. I did not want to trouble him. Towards evening he came groping to the door of my hotel room. An hour before he had heard that I was in New York, ordered his motor and came down. It was the last time. I led him to the elevator and he slipped away. It was a friendly act, so like him. You who are listening to me can each recall similar acts of friendship.

Throughout life no honor or office tempted him to assume undue authority or artificial manner. Simple, natural and unconventional, he humbly went his way. As he and Mrs. Greer were about to sail for the Lambeth Conference, she said, "David, do you want those English people to think you are a freak?" "Certainly not", was his answer. "Then you must get a clerical vest and wear it." So David wearing his "straight jacket", as he called it, and his wife joined our party in London, and Bishop Doane's fear about the unconventionally clothed Bishop of New York was mollified. A few days later, some two hundred of us Bishops were upon the lawn at Fulham Palace, all in long black clerical coats and top hats, a majority in gaiters, aprons and Anglican headgear. Amidst us in unconscious simplicity, satisfied that in his clerical vest he had met all reasonable requirements, walked Greer with his Panama straw hat and cutaway jacket. It was as refreshing as it was later to see the Presiding Bishop Tuttle lift his sombrero as he was presented to His Majesty the King at a formal reception upon the lawn of Windsor Castle.

These details are not trivial when they are expressions of the men:--simplicity affects the whole man.

Visions came to him as Bishop as they had aforetime. To him as Rector of St. Bartholomew's Parish the Cathedral meant nothing; and for quite a while he wondered what could be done with it. Then the Diocese, its parishes, people, institutions and spiritual forces took shape in his imagination, and in the great and noble Cathedral of the future, lifted above the city, and drawing to itself and towers the attention and affection of the whole city, from Blackwell's Island to the Bronx and Hudson Heights, he saw the vision of a spiritually united Diocese with the worship and activities of the Cathedral as its centre. The Cathedral became to him "An instrument in Church Unity." "It stands not for one particular party, type or group . . . but to express and represent them all, so far as they are true and loyal to Jesus Christ, as this Church hath received him." The Cathedral is "a centre of intellectual light and leading in the spirit of Jesus Christ."

[11] A similar vision of the nations of the world bound together in spiritual unity in the name of the King of Peace made the thought and reality of war almost impossible with him. And it was only after a deep sense of the justice of the cause had impelled him that he could take up the sword; and though he did his part valiantly through the war, he always sustained the spirit of Christ towards the enemy. They were not to be hated, but to be conquered and redeemed.

The piety of his childhood, which had been with him through his evangelical, his philosophic and his active, rushing life, was with him to the end. The limitations of illness and the anguish of pain were assuaged by the knowledge of the affection of clergy and people: and faith in the suffering and risen Christ gave him serenity to the end. And so, while the representatives of the Diocese were in council, his life was ebbing out at St. Luke's; and as he gave his precious soul to God and fell asleep, it was as if he beckoned to her who had accompanied and supported him so many years; and she followed. It was a happy life, a happy close, and we are confident, a happy awakening.

Project Canterbury