Ride like a cowboy, pray like a saint

Daily Reading for May 24 • Jackson Kemper, First Missionary Bishop in the United States, 1870

Jackson Kemper’s ministry is tied up with the organization called the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, which in turn is tied up with the story of Episcopal expansion in areas west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio River. As early as 1792, the General Convention considered a proposal to send Episcopal missionaries to the frontiers of the United States. From 1796 on, the individual dioceses formed missionary societies. Though the General Convention had asked them to send missionaries west, the societies, with very few exceptions, limited their work to the boundaries of their own states. . . .

In 1835, using the New Testament for its model, the General Convention decided that missions should not be a subsidiary committee but rather a responsibility of the entire church. . . . Changing missions into a church-wide responsibility was the first innovation of 1835. A second was the General Convention’s decision to create missionary districts in those new areas of America and to send missionary bishops to them even before any Episcopal work had been started. The model for the new plan was that of the New Testament apostle.

A forty-five-year-old graduate of Columbia and a high churchman, Kemper was the first missionary bishop sent west. . . . Kemper had responsibility for the areas that are now Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. . . . After the first tour of his district, Kemper reported that he could immediately employ one hundred clergy; seven years later, he had been able to secure only thirty-one. By 1840 the Baptists had almost as many clergy at work in Missouri as the Episcopal Church had in all states and territories west of the Alleghenies combined.

The shortage of clergy stemmed from more than lack of funding. Most Episcopal clergy came from reasonably comfortable backgrounds; the frontier mission had relatively little appeal. Missionaries who went west could anticipate low salaries, isolation, danger, substantially lowered lifestyles, and unremitting work. . . .In a memorable but rather archaic wording, Bishop Alexander Garrett of North Texas said that he needed clergy who could “ride like a cow-boy, pray like a saint, preach like an apostle, and having food and raiment be therewith content.”

From A Brief History of the Episcopal Church by David L. Holmes (Trinity Press International, 1993).

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