A path breaking bishop

By Howard Anderson

I have just been reading the proofs of a most interesting biography of Bishop Henry Bishop Whipple, the first bishop of Minnesota. He was elected bishop when there was scarcely any church activity in Minnesota, and persevered for over 42 years as bishop building the diocese into a large diocese with over 200 parishes and missions. He also created a second diocese, The Missionary Diocese of Duluth, which survived until World War II. He cut a wide swath in world wide Anglican circles- a personal friend of five Archbishops of Canterbury and Queen Victoria, his colleagues in the House of Bishop’s held him in highest regard. He was a personal friend of Presbyterian leaders in the U.S and Scotland, well known to the Coptic Pope and Armenian Patriarch. He was a personal friend of a number of U.S. Presidents, counted the nations greatest industrialists as friends and certainly donors to the ministry of the diocese.

Traveling by canoe, horse drawn wagon, horseback (his huge and elegant horse, Old Bashaw, served him for 29 years and was a celebrity across Minnesota) he built the diocese into one of the strongest west of the Mississippi, and even got the perennially Eastern location of the General Convention moved to Minneapolis in the 1890’s, the first time it had ever been held in “the West.” He did battle with Congress over Indian rights, and often won. He convinced Presidents Lincoln, Grant, McKinley and Cleveland to modify federal Indian policy, and even got famed “Indian fighter” Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to admit publicly that he was a liar and backed Gen. Phil Sheridan into changing a war like Indian policy for the federal government into a less bloody policy.

He did all this on a financial shoestring. He was in ill health his whole life, bedridden often, and on doctor’s orders spent many winters in Florida to avoid recurring pneumonia and other respiratory problems. This never seemed to slow him down. In addition to the many Ojibwe and Dakota Episcopal churches, he launched missions to the Swedes and Norwegian’s flooding into Minnesota. When he was wintering in Florida he pressed for better treatment of African Americans, and advocated for the Seminole Indians to be able to keep their title to the Everglades. The schools (Shattuck, St. Mary’s and St. James) and seminary (Seabury) he founded educated women and Native Americans at a time when this was rare. He was faithful in adversity, struggling against great odds to advocate for the voiceless. He seldom found a disenfranchised group which he could not advocate for, drawing deeply from the gospel. Whipple felt that indigenous people across the globe needed to be given autonomy “to overcome the colonial nature of the genesis of their churches through the Church of England’s missionary endeavors.”

The most interesting thing I found in this new biography was a warning to the Communion that we should heed in the 21st Century. When the Lambeth Conference of 1897 was held, and the precursor to the Anglican Consultative Council was created under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Whipple warned “In the past, centralization of authority beyond national bounds has been full of mischief and has brought sorrow to the Church.” He reminded the bishops present in a speech that “each national church had its own peculiar responsibilities to God for the souls entrusted to its care…and any intervention of one national church in the affairs of another will certainly bring sorrow.” Whipple had been very supportive of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, and saw in its insistence on a very broad and generous spirited approach to unity, rather than uniformity, the future of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Oh if we had only taken his advice to beware of the meddling by primates and bishops in the affairs of national churches!

When I look at the raredos at the National Cathedral and see the statue of Whipple, I realize that he was a man of great courage, vision and, it appears, connected to the deepest roots of the Anglican tradition.

The Rev. Dr. Howard Anderson is Warden and President of the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral. He was a long time General Convention deputy.

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