NOTHING in the long and honorable history of our American Episcopate ever created more interest than the relations that existed between the bishops of the Southern States and those of the Northern States during the four years of the Confederacy, and if a single incident could be selected as the one on which the greatest interest was centered it would unquestionably be the consecration of the Reverend Richard Hooker Wilmer to the bishopric of Alabama in 1862.
For some years past I have devoted much of my leisure time to the collection of a series of portraits and autograph letters of our bishops for the library of the great Cathedral that is slowly lifting its walls towards the skies on Mount St. Alban in Washington. Among the letters that have come to me are many that deal with interesting events in the history of our Church and included among these are several in which the consecration of Doctor Wilmer is the theme. The Church Historical Society is the proper custodian of information of this character, and it is therefore with more than ordinary pleasure that I venture to ask you to share with me these interesting documents.
At present our House of Bishops numbers more than 125 members but in 1862 there were but 45. In other words, there are now more than three times as many dioceses as there were in those long-ago days. Something less than a third of these dioceses were in the Southern States.
The eleven Southern dioceses corresponded to the eleven Confederate States and were presided over by the following bishops: In Virginia there was Meade, rich in years and great in knowledge, who died eight days after the consecration of Wilmer, and as his assistant he had the learned Johns. North Carolina had as its diocesan the devout and eloquent Atkinson, while in South Carolina was the faithful Davis. Georgia was fortunate in having Elliott, a fine scholar, a distinguished gentleman, and an influential bishop. The diocesan of Alabama was Nicholas H Cobbs, a student of varied attainments and wide culture who died on January 11, 1861, thus creating a vacancy. Mississippi had as its bishop the beloved and revered Green, then in the full strength of his manhood, while in far-away Florida was Rutledge. The great missionary Otey known as the "Good Bishop" was in Tennessee, and Lay, likewise a faithful missionary was bishop of Arkansas, and Indian Territory. Polk, a graduate from the Military Academy at West Point who had given up the army to enter the Church, was Bishop of Louisiana, while in Texas, then and long after, the forceful Gregg was the diocesan.
These were all vigorous, strong-minded, and able men, and if a comment could with safety be made about them it would be that they were above the average of our bishops.
A convention had been called to consider the question of organizing an independent church in the Southern States, but it is to the everlasting honor of our Church that if states did secede wiser counsels prevailed among bishops (many of whom, like Meade, are on record as opposing secession), and no separation took place. [*Perry writes: "Meade, with no little reluctance, entered into the confederation of the Church of the South during the Civil war, and became by virtue of seniority of consecration, the presiding bishop of the Church in the Confederate States." Bishops of the American Church, page 51.]
A word or two concerning the new bishop may not be amiss. He was born in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1816 and was graduated at Yale in 1836 and from the Virginia Theological Seminary three years later. After studying for the ministry he was ordained to the priesthood in the Monumental Church in Richmond by Bishop Richard Channing Moore in 1840; after which until 1862 he served as rector of various parishes in his native state. In 1861 when he was chosen to the Episcopate he was therefore in his fortyseventh year. That he received the full approval of the Convention that elected him is testified to by his own writing.
Passing now to the letters which are really the purpose of this short paper, I beg to call your attention to one written in the field by Bishop (and Lieutenant-General) Polk of the Confederate Army. It bears neither the name of the place where it was written nor yet any date but it was obviously penned some time in the early winter of 1861 and it is to one of his colleagues in the House of Bishops.
"My dear Bishop: I am glad to find that the vacancy in the Episcopate of Alabama is so soon to be filled and hope it may be by a man who will do good service to the Church."
The remainder of the letter has no bearing on this paper but I add it as of general interest, especially the last paragraph.
"For myself, have been patiently waiting until the President [Jefferson Davis] could find some one to whom he could entrust the command to which he has called me. My acceptance was to fill a gap as I have been hoping another would be found to replace me and allow me to return to my pastoral and other duties. As yet that relief has not come, though I have been promised by the President that he would not forget my wishes. I will accept it if it is God's will it should come; if not, I will by His blessing retain my position and do my duty until the end.
"This place I have now made one of great strength, and let who will command it, it will be one of the most difficult to take in the whole Confederacy. It is, withal, the key to the whole Mississippi Valley. To hold it is to hold the river, to hold the river is to hold the valley, to hold the valley is next to holding the Confederacy.
"I see our brother McIlvaine [Bishop of Ohio] is doing what he can in England to sustain his cause and to depress ours. I remain, very truly yours in Xt., L. Polk."
The second letter is of supreme importance for it is from Wilmer himself. It was written in Richmond on November 27, 1861, and is addressed to the "Rt. Rev. Wm. Meade, D.D., Millwood, Va."
"I obey an impulse of my heart in informing you that I have a few days since received information that I was elected to the Episcopate of the Diocese of Alabama. The election was unanimous in both orders, and is forced upon me earnestly by various considerations. I have neither expected nor sought it. It seeks me, and I shall accept it. I do it with many misgivings and many fears. If I knew more of what I have to encounter, I would, I doubt not fear more than I: do. But you, knowing what I have to meet, will know how to fear for me and to pray for me. May I not hope to be remembered by you where it will be effectual.
"If you have counsel to give me --I shall be most grateful.
"In haste, very faithfully and affect. yrs., etc.,
"Richd. H. Wilmer."
It is obvious from the tone of this letter, for both fears and doubts abound, that there was trouble in the future and the next letter brings us face to face with a difficult that at first seems unsurmountable. To consecrate a bishop without proper canonical authority was not to be thought of.
The letter is from Bishop Atkinson of North Carolina and is dated Wilmington, January 6, 1861. Evidently the good bishop was a little slow in becoming accustomed to the new year; for he must have intended to write 1862. There is nothing in the letter to show to whom it was addressed but I may hazard a guess that it was to Bishop Meade; for it begins with "My dear Bishop" and continues as follows:
"Wilmer has expressed to me the wish that I should act, as one of his consecrators, a duty which I would gladly perform, both because of our longstanding friendship, and because of my high estimate of his qualifications for the office about to be conferred on him. But as the Canons of the Church in the United States are not to be followed, and as the Church in the Confederate States has adopted no Canons, I see no law or rule by which he is to he consecrated, and I must therefore decline to take part in what seems to me an irregular transaction. If there were a necessity for its being done at present, that necessity might stand in the place of law. But I see no such necessity, as Canons can and will be passed at our next meeting, and the diocese might in the meantime be served by the neighboring Bishops. I. must therefore reluctantly request not to be named as one of his cons orators."
"Yours in Christ,
The canonical difficulty seems to have been overcome; for the next letter tells of other troubles which happily were also surmounted in due course of time. It is written in pencil and, addressed to Bishop Meade by the Assistant Bishop John Johns of Virginia and is dated Richmond, January 12, 1862.
It runs as follows:
"I have pondered your proposal with regard to the consecration & trust I am ready for any service wh. duty may demand. Since my return from Norfolk, I have seen & conferred with Dr. Wilmer & find that tho' he is unwilling to interfere with the wishes of the Diocese of Alabama yet it wd. accord with his convenience & inclination [if] consecration could take place in Richmond, & it would be peculiarly agreeable to him if you wd. preside & preach on the occasion. I need not say we all sympathize in this desire so natural & proper at this time especially--& in the existing circumstances of the Church in the Confederate States. Of course if this is to be the arrangement--that is if you accede to his wishes the Service must be here. No one wd. think of your exposing yourself by a journey to Alabama. Your health is a consideration sufficient to justify the selection of a place wh. you can preach without unreasonable risk.
"Again--that Dr. Wilmer sh. be consecrated & that as early as possible is more important for the Diocese & for himself (as he is now detached from his congregation) than that it sh. be conducted at any particular place. Now it is exceedingly doubtful whether the Canonical number of bishops can be had at any point south of this. Otey & Atkinson decline, as I understand from Dr. Wilmer--Green is not in a condition to venture far from home. Elliott wd. not be likely to leave Savannah whilst it is menaced by the enemy. My going would, in like manner be governed by the position of affairs at Norfolk. The only Bishop who could be relied on for a southern point is the Bishop of Florida (Bp. Lay has gone to Little Rock). I say nothing of Bishop Davis as his blindness would prevent his going to a distant place. I think this statement is conclusive against the appointment of Mobile or any such remote town, & wd. explain satisfactorily how, in selecting, another wd. really be called for by the interest of Alabama.
"In Richmond, if you can come, the uncertainty is diminished to almost nothing--I am on the spot--if the Bishop of Alabama [?] did not join us, Bishop Davis whose wife & son are at Mr. J. Stewart 's, [?] & who has recently been here himself, could reach us in a few hours & Dr. Wilmer thinks wd. return to aid in his consecration. There is therefore good reason for supposing that what could not be attempted elsewhere without strong probability of failure can be essayed here as little risk as ordinarily attends such appointments.
"I think it right to make these statements that I may aid to present the whole subject for your consideration as it strikes us here, tho' I am ready to acquiesce in any arrangement wh. you may deem it best to adopt.
I find the following additional information in a sketch of Bishop Wilmer written at the time of his death: "As his election and consecration took place during the Civil War when the Southern dioceses were organized as a separate church, he was received into the Episcopate of the United States in 1865 only after signing an equivalent to the promise of conformity prescribed in the ordinal." [Appleton's Annual Cyclopaedia, 1900, page 506.]
Permit me to mention one other incident in Bishop Wilmer's life. At the close of the Civil War he recommended to the clergy of his diocese the omission of the prayer "for the President and all in civil authority" on the ground that only military authority existed in Alabama whereupon Gen. George H. Thomas (himself also a Virginian) suspended him and his clergy from their functions. The Bishop protested that this was secular interference with religious liberty and declared that he would never use the prayer until the interference ceased. He appealed to higher authorities in turn, including the President of the United States (Andrew Johnson), and finally secured a revocation of the order. The matter as he contended was not a question of his loyalty or disloyalty, but concerned the larger issue of religious liberty. His action resulted in the establishment for all time to come, in this land at least, "the principle that in spiritualities the Church's rule is supreme."
According to Bishop Perry, the distinguished historiographer of the American Church, Bishop Wilmer's episcopate was able, vigorous, and abundant in results. He was a sound theologian, a delightful writer, a wise and impartial administrator, an earnest preacher, and a brave and fearless prelate. Beloved by his people, revered by his brethren, respected by all classes and conditions, a wise counselor, an impartial judge, a capable and clever man of affairs, his administration is historic and will ever be held in remembrance. [Bishops of the American Church, page 155.]