Project Canterbury

Bishop John Henry Hobart
By Frederick S. Arnold

from The American Church Monthly, volume 41, 1937, pp 23-30.

THE traveler through up-state New York may well pause a moment at the west end of Auburn, near the business district, to admire a group of buildings of unusual charm. The architect, Upjohn, has left us one of his typical and larger monuments in the church of St. Peter's, Auburn. The Gothic roofs and the delicate spire, piercing the pale blue of that misty sky in the land of lakes, rise above the old elms in the spacious yard between the buildings. A heavy iron fence keeps the churchyard from the street. On the left is the grey stone Parish-house, of like style with the church; on the right the rectory; and behind and around the church itself an ancient graveyard recalls the earliest time of the pioneers of Auburn. That time was not so long ago after all. The first log cabin and sawmill rose only in 1795. St. Peter's Church came in 1810 and is as old as the settlement itself; though this first church was not, of course, Upjohn's bit of almost rural England that now pleases one so much. The early church, itself successor to a log schoolhouse where the folk worshipped, was a plank sanctuary resembling the plainer sort of New England meeting house. Yet it stood on the same ground. There, in that little wooden church, a great bishop held divine service for the last time,--and in the rectory he died. Bishop Hobart, third bishop of New York, which meant then bishop of this whole state, had contracted an enteric trouble from the polluted water of these frontier settlements. In his exhausted state, worn by the toils of horseback and stagecoach travel, by roads deep in mud, across the swamps and along the rivers of the wilderness, he could not throw off the illness. He died in Auburn, and was buried in his parish of Trinity in the city of New York.

All these considerations tell the tale. It was exhausting physical labor to be a bishop of New York in those days. The Church was so poor that the bishop could not be supported; so he must also be rector of a church to get a salary. Just as Bishop Seabury was also rector of New London, Connecticut, so the first three bishops of New York were also rectors of Trinity Church and the fourth bishop was assistant minister there. That was how they got their living. It was no merrier to be poor in those days than now, but people seem to have been more hardy to endure it. Then there was the visitation of the diocese. An aged presbyter has said, "I remember Bishop DeLancey, who came on horseback and spent a week ministering to us. Bishop Huntington came by rail and spent the week-end. Now the bishop comes by auto and goes home the same night. Perhaps I may live to see a bishop fly over us in an aeroplane, and scatter his blessings from the clouds of heaven!"

Buckboards, stagecoaches, and saddle-horses, over terrible roads, were the frontier-conveyances. The West really began at Schenectady, a town twice raided and burned by French and Indians. Everything beyond Fort Schuyler--now called Utica, as a tribute to Cato the Republican--was frontier. In central New York, a vast forest of great trees almost free from undergrowth, extended for hundreds of miles. The soft floor of the forest was the richest ground in the world. Gradually settlers and saw mills wrought a great destruction. The covered wagons, called Canastota-wagons because they were made at that village, moved ever westward. Towns like Onondaga--now Syracuse--Rochester, and Buffalo, grew up along the trail, while the emigrants worked on to Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. The latter are the states where Bishop Philander Chase founded the church. Under such conditions, then, Bishop Hobart visited this wilderness. He came to our little crossroads-missions with his blessing. He confirmed and taught us on the edge of the forest. He heartened the lonely priests, working in a wild land amongst paganized frontiersmen and noisy, heretical preachers, who opposed the holy faith. He cared for the Indian tribes of the Six Nations, or at least the remnant of them. There he met and he ordained to the priesthood and supported the Reverend Eleazer Williams, who, men said, was really Louis XVII, escaped from the Temple. This valiant priest at length led what was left of the Oneidas out to settle in Wisconsin, where his Christian work still survives. Bishop Hobart was a great missionary bishop, taking his obligations to his vast western territory seriously. He built on firm catholic lines and we have built on his foundations. The great bishop's death was simply the result of overwork and exposure on this hard and strenuous frontier.

Let us always remember that Hobart, who typifies the American Catholic revival long before the Oxford movement, was a great missionary; not in the sense that he raised much money for missions, but in the sense that he converted the misbelievers and planted the Church where before the Church was not. That is the first missionary duty--to make converts of them that are without, and to build up churches and to found new ones.

John Henry Hobart was born in Philadelphia, September fourteenth, 1775, and graduated from Princeton in 1793. In 1798 he was ordained deacon by Bishop White who died in 1833, and who, therefore, actually outlived him. Hobart was ordained priest in 1801, by Bishop Provoost, whose successor he was to become. After engagements near Philadelphia, and at Hempstead, Long Island, the old parish of Bishop Seabury's father, he became assistant minister at Trinity Church, New York, in 1800. He was secretary to General Convention while still in deacon's orders, and, after he was ordained to the priesthood, secretary to New York's diocesan convention, deputy in 1801 and 1804 to General Convention, and secretary of the house of deputies. He received the doctorate from Union College in 1806. He was consecrated bishop in 1811. He died at Auburn in 1830.

We find it hard today to conceive of the state of religion in 1811. America was all mission territory like Egypt or Arabia-A narrow Calvinism held the field, dissolving slowly into a more heretical Liberalism in the East and into the mere uneducated emotions of revivalism on the frontier. Nevertheless, these mistaught ancestors of ours believed in Christ, but a Christ most dimly apprehended by individual interpretations of the Bible. The Bible, indeed, was explicitly all that they retained of the manifold and rich tradition of the apostles, while individual interpretation was already commencing to tear the Bible to pieces.

Moreover, memories of seventeenth and sixteenth century persecutions that had driven their ancestors out of Europe, made the Americans only slightly less bitter against Anglicanism than against Romanism. True, the prevailing Republicanism of Rousseau, Tom Paine, and Jefferson, as of Sir Harry Vane, Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry, whether French or English, encouraged toleration. But then Republicanism was hostile to bishops, who were thought of as the thin entering wedge of a house of lords. The populace of Philadelphia had threatened to toss Bishop White into the Delaware, on his arrival from England. There were Episcopalians who stipulated that, if they accepted an American episcopate, no bishop should reside in their immediate vicinity. South Carolina came into union with General Convention on the condition that no bishop was to be established in the state, though they soon relinquished this stipulation. Bishop Provoost said that in his opinion the Church must die out with the old colonial families in New York, and a similar dismal prophecy was made, in Virginia, by Chief Justice Marshall. The very name by which we sought to be known amongst the world's people--that incongruous civil name which we have not yet dared to modify--was adopted to propitiate the dark passions of "them that are without."

The episcopate had come and, one might say, almost gone. In New York, Bishop Provoost had retired, out of indifference, to read Italian and study botany in his comfortable country-home in Dutchess County. Bishop Moore had succeeded him, and was too sick to work. So Hobart was elected for New York, and Griswold for the Eastern diocese (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire), then vacant. Their credentials were passed by General Convention meeting at Hartford. They could not be consecrated immediately, for only two bishops were present. Nor could more than two active bishops be found to consecrate later in the year. Therefore Dr. Provoost was drawn from his retirement. He yielded most unwillingly. He was at length persuaded. Yet he balked at the gate, when he found that the consecrators had no wigs. A bishop must wear a wig;--no wig, no bishop! This issue as to ornaments was finally compromised. Bishops White and Jarvis were dispensed from wigs because they owned none, and Bishop Provoost in wig, "magpie," and bands was allowed to stand for the dignity of the episcopate. Bishop White was the consecrator.

As ornaments and ceremonial are not Christian essentials, the conflicts they have occasioned are both sad and sillly. No vestiarian controversy, however, was ever quite so meaningless as this one about Bishop Provoost's wig. Bishop Hobart was elected rector of Trinity Church to succeed Bishop Moore. He had episcopal charge of New Jersey until 1815, when that state received a bishop. From 1816 to 1819, he had provisional charge of the diocese of Connecticut.

So now) Bishop Hobart was off at the start, though he was technically only assistant bishop until the death of poor, paralyzed Bishop Moore in 1816. And from the start there was controversy.

As Bishop Hobart's High Church views were well known, a fellow assistant at Trinity Church, otherwise a vapid and dull person, published "A Solemn Appeal to the Church" in opposition. This kept enmity alive. Bishop Provoost even tried, in 1812, to assume some of the authority he had resigned. Diocesan Convention, however, rejected the claims of the botanist, who returned to walk in his garden in Dutchess County. These were but slight things. The great Presbyterian, Dr. Mason, had already sought to crush Hobart, before 1811. This controversy centered round Columbia College, where Mason had, in a sort, taken possession, with the title of provost. (The "president" had to be a Churchman by the terms of Columbia's charter.) Mason tried to crush young Dr. Hobart by his own pompous, Presbyterian power amongst wealthy laymen. Hobart, however, resisted valiantly, asserting the Church's vested rights in the old Church-college. Hobart went into the qualifications for the ministry. He published in 1807, "An Apology for Apostolic Order and its Advocates." From that time forward men knew that the doctrine of the Apostolic Succession was part of the Church's teaching. Hobart stands with Seabury, par nobile fratrum, as a champion of the Catholic religion in the beginnings of the American Church.

With groups and organizations outside of the Church, Bishop Hobart did not think it right to cooperate. Such things might sometimes be done in England, where the size and prestige of the Church assured the Church the leading position in every sense. In America, where heresy was triumphant, cooperation with outsiders could only subordinate the Church to the world-power and confuse the distinctions between faith and unbelief.

In this spirit of faith and zeal, Bishop Hobart founded (1809) the Bible and Common Prayer Book Society, in order that the faithful might be independent of the heretically controlled Bible Society. As we have seen, he asserted, against powerful Presbyterians, the vested rights of the Church in Columbia College, of which he was a trustee. At Detroit, at the laying of the Corner Stone of a church, and at other places, he declined the mingling of Masonic rites with the Church's services, because the Church has no peers. She must stand alone.

Was not Bishop Hobart wise and right in his attitude of isolation? The Church is the outward and historic expression of the Holy Spirit. To confuse her activity and efficiency with the work of man-made societies and sects, of ministers' meetings and of political parties, is not only to degrade her divine peer-lessness, but to endanger her mission and teaching. One is always compromised by the courtesies and comities of any kind of association. There are, of course, gains to be made, but the gains mean that we bring into the Church persons who do not believe in her. Even when the Mayor of New York prescribed to the religious bodies of the city a participation in the funeral of Governor Clinton, Hobart refused to comply. He would not take orders from the civil power nor meddle in politics. If the non-jurors in 1688 had taken this ground, the Church in England and America need never have suffered from the Whig oppression of the eighteenth century.

Education--orthodox and Christian education--was a great cause to which Hobart was devoted. Again our thought returns to the land of lakes. There is a quiet city whose grey walls rise from grey waves, underneath blue-grey skies, above the long, deep waters of Seneca Lake. The lake lies four hundred and forty-four feet above sea level and is more than six hundred feet deep. Here the Senecas gathered in the evening of their race, after Sullivan's raid of 1779 had slain their warriors, burned their villages, and wasted their rich orchards and fields of maize. They gathered and beat the Indian drums--their death drums--and their remnant passed westward. Every now and then, when church-bells in Geneva are ringing for evensong, there comes the lonesome, ghostly sound of the death drums of the Iroquois, along Lake Seneca's lovely, haunted shores. On the rocky ridge above the town, good Bishop Hobart stood. "And here it shall stand" he said striking his staff into the turf. His eye swept the reaches of flashing, changing water, the rocky bluffs of the shore, and, beyond the lake, the far tilted levels of the great Apalachian table-land.

Here Hobart College stands today, beautiful in a world of beauty, grey like the skies of the misty land, and thoughtful as the Bishop, who built for thought and peace. Hobart College was founded (as Geneva College) in 1822. Its location will ever be a reminder of the great Bishop's joy in the beauty of nature. The General Theological Seminary opened for teaching in 1819. There, too, Hobart's effort and influence was great, both in founding the seminary and in keeping it in New York. He felt that in New York alone was there the solid backing of churchly atmosphere and Anglican tradition, which could support and uphold the Church's great school of theology. He himself occupied the chair of Pastoral Theology there.

Some of Bishop Hobart's activities were such as today we can hardly understand. For instance, he brought out, at great expense to himself, an American edition of D'Oyly and Mant's Family Bible. Scott's Bible was also then popular. These books were editions of the Bible containing notes and commentary. But Scott's Family Bible, though published by one of our clergy in England, had Calvinist tendencies. Hobart insisted on giving Church-people something better to read. Today we do not suppose that you could prevail on anyone to read either book. But that, perhaps, is hardly a good sign.

After all, Hobart created an epoch. He found the Church of the old colonial families and left the Church of the growing American people. He found some twenty-eight clergy and had one hundred and twenty-seven clergy before he died. There was scarcely a visitation ever made beyond the Hudson River valley until his time, but he traveled through the whole state to Buffalo, and even made missionary excursions out as far as Detroit. Christian education was at a low ebb. He combatted the Presbyterians in Columbia College, founded Hobart College, and saw the General Theological Seminary firmly established in New York before he died. Church principles were dying out in 1811. In 1830, Catholic teaching was thriving and winning out throughout the state. Young men, like Doctor John Reed of Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, and Doctor Muhlen-berg, of Holy Communion Church, New York, went further than Bishop Hobart could have gone.

In Hobart's time modern ceremonial was yet a long way off. He preached Catholic doctrine in a black gown from the old three-decker pulpit. He taught the Christian year without the help of colors. He magnified the Sacrament of the altar without lights, incense, or vestments. In fact, we ought to realize that ornaments and ceremonial are really a tendency of our age, rather than some achievement of a "catholic party." Methodists and Congregationalists set up altars, crosses, and candles. Presbyterians introduce surplices and vested choirs. Many Broad Church parishes enjoy more ceremonial than many High Church parishes. The thing of most value is not the ceremonial. Most valuable is orthodox belief, the catholic practice in the individual life, and the holy faith.

The words of Bishop Hobart ring almost like the so-called slogans of our own day. His chosen position was: "Evangelical truth with Apostolical Order." That has always been a kind of minimum of loyal Anglicanism. Bishop Hobart left on record and commended to private devotion a beautiful prayer for the faithful departed. Baptismal regeneration and the real, objective presence of Christ in the holy Eucharist were strongly taught by the great bishop. "Give me a little zealous imprudence," was a favorite phrase of Hobart's. So when, as he started on that last weary, western journey from which he did not return, his wife said, "You are undertaking too much"; Bishop Hobart made answer, "How can I do too much for Him Who has done everything for me?"

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