An unexpected history lesson

Commemoration of James Chisholm, priest (1815-1855)

Psalm 116:5-9

Sirach 38:9-17

2 Corinthians 1:3-11

Matthew 24:1-8

I wasn’t born in Virginia, but I always consider myself a Virginian. I remember the saying, “To be a Virginian, whether by birth, marriage or adoption, is an introduction to any state, passport to any foreign country and a benediction from the Almighty God” and, smiling a bit smugly to myself, often say, “Yes, it is.” It’s got its faults, lots of them, and it’s got its cases of inhumanity, bigotry, racism, class-ism, sexism and quite a few other -isms, but it’s still home. When I see something about a Virginian, I prick up my ears — was it someone from an area I knew? A name that was familiar? Possibly even a relative, no matter how distant? I saw that the Rev. James Chisholm was part of a Virginia history I knew nothing about but it was in an area was close to home so I started reading. What I read was about a quiet, scholarly man who, even though grafted onto the Virginia tree, was a man, a priest of the Episcopal Church (although he would have come up short at the name “priest”) who showed the meaning of Jesus’ message of “love your neighbor” even unto death.

The Rev. Mr. Chisholm was a scholar, a studious man of gentle demeanor, shy in social situations but a stirring preacher and gifted teacher. Born, raised and primarily educated in Massachusetts, he came to Virginia as a teacher, was exposed to the Episcopal church and found in it a home and a vocation. He served in several parishes, the last being St. John’s in Portsmouth. His congregation rapidly grew fond of him and respected his dedication to the gospel that he preached and lived. The city too grew to love and respect him as one who practiced what he preached and who cared less for the state of their wallets than the state of their health and well-being, both physical and spiritual.

James Chisholm, a recent widower whose wife had died in February of 1855, had two small sons left in his care. An epidemic of yellow fever began in Portsmouth in July of that same year. He sent his sons away for safety’s sake (one was already in poor health as the result of the effect of measles), but he stayed at his post because that was where he believed his Christian duty lay, caring for and consoling the healthy as well as committing the souls and bodies of those who had contracted and suffered from the pestilence. He received word that his sickly son had taken a turn for the worse and was likely to die imminently, but he would not leave Portsmouth and the suffering people there. He was tireless in his service to God and his fellow human beings. He wasn’t alone; in all seven ministers representing different denominations remained in Portsmouth and four of them died of the fever, most contracting it during their care of and ministry to the sick.

In September, 1855, Just a few days after the death of his younger son, James Chisholm himself succumbed to yellow fever, one of the approximately 3,200 deaths in a place where the pre-epidemic population had been about 12,000, of whom about two-thirds fled when the epidemic began. His death was mourned by those who had survived, and, it is said, approximately 20 people attended his internment which was conducted by a Baptist minister, one of the few remaining clergymen. Most burials were accompanied only by the grave digger and the hearse driver and maybe a clergyman to read the service over the body, so 20 people was a great testimony to the respect and love Chisholm had garnered although his earthly wealth amounted to the a few hundred dollars which were left to his surviving son.*

Sometimes it isn’t the great acts that are remembered when someone dies. I once knew a Baptist preacher who, like James Chisholm, would go where he was needed, whether or not the person were a member of his congregation or someone he even knew. All he had to do was hear that someone’s Aunt Mabel, a third-cousin’s mother-in-law or a neighbor’s child was ill and in hospital and, day or night, he would jump in his car and go there to visit, pray and do what he could to bring comfort. He did a good job at that. He would have liked James Chisholm, even if their theologies weren’t identical. What was identical was their belief that following the gospel required this of them, a God-sent mission not just to preach sin, but to show love and compassion. That’s a very big deal, then as well as now.

What I learn from James Chisholm is that it doesn’t matter where I was born or where I will be buried but how I live while I am here. It doesn’t matter how much money I have or don’t have in the bank, it’s how I spend myself serving others with humility, respect and love, no matter their status or anything else that society or hierarchy says separates me from them (or them from me, for that matter). I can read Jesus’ words and understand them intellectually, but until I see someone like James Chisholm (or my Baptist preacher friend, may he rest in peace) and really take in what it means to put those words into action, they are just words. I needed that reminder.

A history lesson from a state rich in history and a new understanding of what gospel living is about from another transplant by the grace of God. That’s a very worthwhile thing to think about today.


*Conrad, David Holmes, Memoir of Rev. James Chisholm, A.M., Late Rector of St. John’s Church, Portsmouth, Va., with Memoranda of the Pestilence Which Raged in That City During the Summer and Autumn of 1855. Originally published by the Protestant Episcopal Society for the Promotion of Evangelical Knowledge, January 1856.

Lon Wagner, The Virginian Pilot, “The Fever.” Originally published July 10-23, 2005.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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